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Shootout: 112 Portable Headphones Reviewed (Monster DNA Pro over-ear added 05/13/14)

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Thread Starter 
Introduction

 

I started planning this review around the same time I joined head-fi and saw how useful multi-headphone comparisons could be for a newcomer. I put my meager (at the time) collection of portable headphones to good use and tested them against each other. What started out as a 6-way review featuring a couple of small, cheap headphones has become a large investment of time and resources in an attempt to provide a consistent introduction to portable headphones for newcomers to portable hi-fi. The thread contains my reviews of dozens of portable and semi-portable headphones and reflects my personal experience with each set . It is being consistently maintained and updated.

 

Note: a more up-to-date, interactive, sortable version of this thread can now be found here.
 


Other Useful Links

 

For my running comparison of in-ear earphones done in a format similar to this review, see the IEM Review list: Multi-IEM Review

 

For concise definitions some popular sound terminology, see the Head-Fi Glossary: Describing Sound - A Glossary

 

Table of Contents:


The thread can be a bit tedious to navigate through but I have put a navigation marker in front of each review so that you can use your browser’s search function to jump to the desired part.


Tier D ($0-20)

(D1) Koss KSC75 (stock) 

(D2) JVC HA-S150 

(D3) Parts-Express Mini Headphones
(D4) Panasonic RP-HX50 “Slimz” 

(D5) Philips SBC HS430 
(D6) Philips SHL9500 

(D7) Kanen KM-95 
(D8) Kanen KM-880 
(D9) Panasonic RP-DJ120 
(D10) Coby CV-185 

(D11) Altec Lansing UHP304 

(D12) Aiwa Shellz

(D13) Philips SHL1600 

(D14) Coby CV163 

(D15) Sentry HO268 

 

Tier C ($20-50)
(C1) Sennheiser PX100 
(C2) Audio-Technica ATH-ON3 (a.k.a. ONTO) 
(C3) Soundmagic P10 
(C4) Yuin G2A 
(C5) Grado iGrado 
(C6) Koss PortaPro 
(C7) JVC HA-M750 “Black Series” 
(C8) iFrogz EarPollution Nerve Pipe 
(C9) Philips SBC HP430 
(C10) JVC HA-S700 
(C11) Denon AH-P372 
(C12) Panasonic RP-HTX7 

(C13) Sony MDR-Q68LW 
(C14) Equation Audio EP3070 

(C15) Equation Audio RP-15MC 

(C16) Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 GM 

(C17) Maxell DHP-II 

(C18) Earsquake PIXI

(C19) Earpollution ThrowBax 

(C20) Subjekt X! HD-AK1000 

(C21) Soundmagic P20  

(C22) MEElectronics HT-21 

(C23) Arctic Sound P281 

(C24) dB Logic HP-100 

(C25) Audio-Technica ATH-FC700 

(C26) Sennheiser PX90 

(C27) Koss KSC35 

(C28) Prodipe Pro 800 

(C29) Koss UR55 

(C30) Sony MDR-770LP

(C31) Coloud Colors 

(C32) Pioneer SE-MJ71 

(C33) Sony PIIQ MDR-PQ2 

(C34) Panasonic RP-HTF600-S

(C35) Astrotec AS-100HD

(C36) Astrotec AS-200HD 

 

Tier B ($50-100) - Post #2
(B1) Koss KSC75 (modded) 
(B2) AKG K81DJ (a.k.a. K518DJ / K518LE) 
(B3) Creative Aurvana Live! 
(B4) Ultrasone Zino 
(B5) Sennheiser PX200-II 
(B6) Audio-Technica ATH-ES7 
(B7) Grado SR60i 
(B8) Audio-Technica ATH-M30 
(B9) Philips SHP5400 / 5401 

(B10) Beyerdynamic DT235 
(B11) Sennheiser HD238 

(B12) Sennheiser HD228 
(B13) Sony MDR-XB500 
(B14) Alessandro MS1 

(B15) Numark PHX Pro 

(B16) Ultrasone HFI-450 / Yamaha RH10MS 

(B17) Koss Pro DJ100 

(B18) Denon DN-HP700

(B19) AKG K430 

(B20) Sony MDR-XB700 

(B21) Sony MDR-V6 

(B22) Audio-Technica ATH-SQ5 

(B23) Pioneer SE-MJ5 

(B24) Ultrasone HFI-15G 

(B25) Sennheiser PX100-II 

(B26) Beyerdynamic DTX 300 p 

(B27) Superlux HD668B 

(B28) Fischer Audio FA-004 

(B29) Soundmagic P30 

(B30) Sennheiser HD428 

(B31) Urbanears Plattan 

(B32) Marshall Major 

(B33) Philips O'Neill SHO9560 The Stretch 

(B34) Fischer Audio Oldskool '70

(B35) Rock-It Sounds R-Shield

(B36) Rock-It Sounds R-DJ - Added 02/05/2014

 

Tier A ($100-400)
(A1) M-Audio Studiophile Q40 
(A2) AKG K181DJ 
(A3) Sennheiser HD25-1 II 
(A4) Phiaton MS400 

(A5) Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9A 

(A6) Audio-Technica ATH-M50 

(A7) TDK WR700 

(A8) V-Moda Crossfade LP 
(A9) Monster Beats by Dr Dre Solo 
(A10) Bowers & Wilkins P5 

(A11) Sony MDR-ZX700 

(A12) Monster Beats by Dr Dre Studio 

(A13) Bose Triport (AE1) 

(A14) Beyerdynamic DT1350 

(A15) Audio-Technica ATH-ES10

(A16) Denon AH-D1100

(A17) V-Moda M-80 / V-80 

(A18) Fischer Audio Oldskool rpm 33 1/3

(A19) Skullcandy Mix Master

(A20) Klipsch Image One

(A21) Bowers & Wilkins P3

(A22) Denon DN-HP1000- Added 09/07/2013

(A23) Muntio PRO40 - Added 01/24/2014

(A24) Creative Aurvana Live! 2 - Added 02/25/2014

(A25) Monster DNA Pro Over-Ear - Added 05/13/2014

 

(S1) Summary
 

 


Testing:

Disclaimer: All of these tests are subjective. I am basing the outcomes of these tests purely on what I hear, using my ears and my setups. Also, I am trying to scale all of the scores to the best of the bunch as much as possible – that is, the 10/10 rating in each category goes to the headphone that performs best in that particular category out of all the ones I’ve tested.

Home Setup (used most):

-FIIO E7 USB DAC
-Creative Labs Audigy 4 Pro -> (Optical) -> iBasso D10

-Tianyun ZERO -> Heed CanAmp 
On-the-go Setup: 

-HiFiMan HM-901, Cowon J3
 

 

Requirements:

 

Though I do not claim that every headphone in this thread is something I would want to use portably, there is a set of criteria for inclusion. In order to be considered portable for the purposes of this write-up, a headphone has to be at least one of the following:

1. Supraaural
2. Folding or Collapsible

3. Equipped with a portable (<5ft, 3.5mm termination) cable


 


Tier D ($0-20)

 

 

 

(D1) Koss KSC75 (stock): The Koss KSC75 is a long-time bang-for-the-buck recommendation of choice on head-fi and other audio forums. I’ve owned a set for many years and they still impress me with their versatility, user-friendliness, and performance


Build Quality (6.5/10): Though they may seem fragile at first,the KSC75s can withstand a lot of abuse. The plastics of the housings aren’t particularly high-grade and the clips do come off once in a while, usually when they get snagged on something, but they are easy enough to reattach. Long-term durability is excellent and Koss’s excellent lifetime warranty deserves a nod here as well.

Comfort (8/10): Initially, they do feel a little awkward and not very well secured. The clips can be bent to fit your ears, however, and they do stay on very well. My ears can get sore from the clips after very long stretches but overall, they are very easy to wear for a long time – the clip-on design prevents headband pressure and the open, foam-padded earcups do not invoke sweat.

Isolation (2/10): The KSC75s are open headphones and will not isolate you from your surroundings or vice versa. Therefore they are less than ideal on loud busses, trains, airplanes, etc. They are perfect when you actually want to hear outside hazards though, such as while jogging, and also in reasonably quiet places (e.g. home, coffee shop, park).

Sound (6.25/10): In this motley group of test subjects, the KSC75s definitely shine in openness and fullness of sound. For the price they do almost everything right – instrument separation is surprising for a phone of this price, the midrange is full-sounding, and the highs are present in quantity and can sparkle on occasion. The bass is slightly muddy and unrefined and doesn’t extend particularly low, instead creeping up on the lower midrange. Top-end extension is similarly average, though they surpass most headphones in the price range. Soundstaging is pretty intimate for an open headphone and the overall presentation is rather forward and aggressive. The 60 Ohm impedance means that these are very forgiving and can be used straight out of virtually any source without hiss.

Value (9.5/10). (MSRP: $19.99; Street Price: $14) At their usual retail price the KSC75s provide an unmatched combination of practicality, durability, comfort, and impressive sound characteristics. The overall sound is forward and aggressive, with plentiful bass and treble. They can also serve as a (disposable) bridge into headphone modding, backup or gym set, or decent-sounding loaner phone. Every head-fier should own a pair (or two).

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15-25,000 Hz
Impedance: 60 Ω

Sensitivity: 101 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 


(D2) JVC HA-S150 “Flats”: An open-box pair of these cost me $5.59 including shipping, but don’t let the miniscule price tag deceive you - the Flats are very good headphones in their own right.



Build Quality (6/10): Upon receiving my open-box pair I immediately noticed that the structure rattles quite a bit. The plastic bits do not feel precision machined like those on the Sennheiser PX100. Another place where the budget nature of these is noticeable is small details such as the lack of strain reliefs on cable entry. On the upside, the plastic is quite thick and sturdy. The headband is metal, and very similar to that of the PX100s, but wrapped in plasticky rubber instead of padding. 

Comfort (6/10): The earcups swivel nicely about the vertical axis, and can provide a good fit. The range of motion of the earcups is nowhere near as wide as that of the PX100s, though, and they clamp down harder despite weighing about the same. Overall, with a bit of fidgeting, I find them very comfortable for some time, but not as suited for prolonged use as some of the other on-ear sets.

Isolation (5/10): These are marketed as semi-closed phones. They leak less than the PX100s and isolate just a bit more. The pleather on the earpads is much thicker than that of the other pleather-padded headphones here. As such, it does not conform as well to the shape of one’s ears and does not seal as well. It’s also less pleasant to the touch. With softer pads these could potentially seal much better.

Sound (5.5/10): On a scale set by budget heavyweights like the KSC75s and the PX100s, the Flats lose points to both, which is really quite a shame because they are good-sounding phones in their own right. They are not as smooth as the PX100s, nor are they as full and rich as the KSC75s. They are, however, well-balanced, reasonably detailed, punchy, and fun. They go surprisingly high at the upper end and provide a decent impact at the lower end. The bass is not as full as with the KSC75s but better controlled. Initially they are somewhat bright and harsh but seem to settle down. Still, they do not fail to impress right out of the box, especially with the price tag in sight.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $19.99, Street Price: $10) The prices fluctuate drastically for these, but hit up ebay and you should be able to pick an open-box pair up for ~$10 – a great deal in my book. They can be put on and pulled off much quicker than the KSC75s while at the same time staying on securely. All in all, these are great headphones if you want some disposable backups, cheap everyday beaters, or something to toss in the box at the office gift raffle. And if you’re still using stock earphones, there is no excuse for not spending $10 on a pair of these.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 12-23,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

 


(D3) Parts-Express Mini Headphones: I’ve had these laying around for months after giving up on using their headband with my KSC75 drivers, so one day I asked myself the fatal question: “how bad could they be?”



Build Quality (2/10): The Parts-Express mini headphones look like your typical in-flight headphones. As you might expect from a disposable set of headphones, the build quality is less than brilliant. The headband is thin and pliable, the plastic is hard and cheap-feeling, and the fit and finish is best not mentioned. On the upside, the plastic bits that clip onto the earcups are made of the same hard plastic as the rest of the assembly and don’t release the earcups as easily as those on the Koss KSC75s. I actually had trouble getting the headband to let go of the stock cups the first time around.


Comfort (4/10): Nothing stellar here either. They are very light and do their job of staying on your head, but will not cope with any headbanging. The KSC75 cups are even worse as they are just too heavy for the weak headband. Bending the headband helps but only as a short-term remedy. The foam pads are quite rough and irritate my ears after a while, but work great as donor foam for various mods (such as the JVC marshmallows Kramer mod).

Isolation (2/10): The cups don’t actually cover my ears and isolation is non-existent. The ambient noise that leaks in is not necessarily a bad thing considering how they sound.

Sound (0/10): I have never, ever heard anything that sounds worse. I very much prefer both the stock Sandisk Sansa buds (even the thin-stem ones that came with the older players) and the so-called ‘speakers’ on my netbook to these. They manage to be bassy, flat, veiled, distant, and muddy all at the same time. I put quite a few hours on them and not a single moment was enjoyable. I sincerely recommend not trying them even if you already have a pair lying around.

Value (2/10). (Price: $1.99+shipping) The only value these possess is as a headband donor for the KSC75/35 or Yuin G2A/G1A (albeit not a very good one). Also, to my great surprise, these actually came with some accessories – spare foam pads and a cheap 1/8” -> 1/4" adapter. If you are curious to try the KSC75s on a headband and want to have some foam, an adapter, and a pair of the worst drivers in the world left over, then by all means give these a shot. Otherwise I suggest sticking to stock earbuds.

 



(D4) Panasonic RP-HX50 “Slimz”: Although Panasonic is not well-known for their headphones, I thought these looked pretty cool and deserved a shot here, if only for their mini-ATH-ES7 styling



Build Quality (5.5/10): The most notable thing about the Slimz is the packaging – they come in a translucent plastic double-wide DVD-style case, which doubles as both the retail box and a travel case. The cups of the headphones are quite small and have a nice “sandblasted” plastic finish and soft pleather pads. The Slimz definitely don’t look cheap but the whole construction feels miniature and fragile. The plastic isn’t as nice as that on the Sennheiser PX100s and the assembly isn’t as solid as that of the JVC Flats. 

Comfort (9/10): The Slimz are very, very light and their fitting mechanism is very versatile - the cups have freedom to rotate about both the vertical and horizontal axes. The headband doesn’t clamp very hard, relying instead on the cup joints to provide a secure fit. I find these about as comfortable as the Soundmagic P10s for long periods of time, but nowhere near as frustrating to put on/take off. They can also be worn around-the-neck very comfortably with no tendency to choke.

Isolation (4.5/10): Though the Slimz are supposed to be closed headphones, the earcups aren’t quite big enough to provide serious isolation. Leakage is minimal.

Sound (4.5/10): The bass is in short supply and somewhat flat- many other small portables in this price category have more impact. However, they are still pretty fun to listen to and the clarity sometimes shows itself very nicely. They are about average in the group on detail and slightly above average in the upper reaches. The good top-end extension, combined with the relatively flat bass, gives a sound signature biased towards the upper end. The most striking thing about these for me was the presence of a soundstage. I expected these closed-back portables to have a closed-in presentation resembling that of the ATH-ON3 but they actually sound quite open and airy for a closed-back design. 

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $49.99, Street Price: $20). With their sharp looks and innovative case these phones provide more than enough utility to warrant a purchase. As travel headphones that can be conveniently stored and don’t bother those around you, they do the job. However, if sound quality is the primary consideration, the good treble quality doesn't quite bridge the overall gap between these and the leaders of this market segment.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 12-24,000 Hz
Impedance: 36 Ω
Sensitivity: 108 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m): Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 


(D5) Philips SBC HS430: Drugstore-sourced set of big-brand budget clip-ons.

1000

 

Build Quality (5/10): As you may expect from a big-name electronics brand, the build is competent. The HS430s are smaller and lighter than the other clip-ons I’ve tried, though the lack of weight does not result in a comfort boost. The cable is thin and Philips went with a dreadful J-cord setup. Regardless, they are solidly built and shouldn't fall apart unless abused.


Comfort (4/10): First the good news: these are very light and small and the pads are the softest foam I’ve seen on a portable headphone (it almost feels cloth-like). Now the bad news: the clips are too hard, too sharp around the edges, and way too close to the cups. They are made of a hard plastic and are not flexible or adjustable at all. Putting these headphones on brings a new meaning to the term ‘clip-ons’. I can tolerate them for short listening sessions, but after a while the clips dig painfully into the back of my ears.

Isolation (3/10): While these are technically only semi-open, they are far too small on the ear to provide any isolation.

Sound (2/10): The packaging that I pulled these out of claimed that they were “ported for EXTRA BASS”. I expected fart-cannon, ill-defined bass, but I heard no such thing. The bass, which did not open up with burn-in, is rather flat and lifeless. It has a good amount of punch but little note and texture. Flat and lifeless are good descriptors for the rest of the sound signature as well. The HS430’s do a fair job of reproducing sound, but they excel at nothing. The treble is a little harsh and the overall sound signature reminds me of the Skullcandy Ink’d buds, but with poorer bass quality. 

Value (3/10). (MSRP: $20, Street Price: $15) In the world of portable headphone where the sub-$20 performance bar is set by the Koss KSC75 and JVC Flats the Philips SBC HS430 cannot compete. They lose points not only on sound, but build quality and design – the cheap-feeling asymmetrical cable and asinine ear clip design do the headphones no favors. So, while these may be competitive in the market at large, in the audiophile world they are merely subpar.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 12-22,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), j-cord; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A



(D6) Philips SHL9500: After the SBC-HS430 clip-ons, I was not actively seeking another experience with Philips portables. Little did I know that the even more reasonably-priced SH9500s would become my very next purchase.


1000


Build Quality (5.5/10): The SHL9500 are handsomely designed headphones finished in a matte black plastic with chrome accents. They utilize a folding structure similar to the Sennheiser PX100s. Philips definitely chose the right design to copy as the folding mechanism of the PX100s is a personal favorite of mine. However, somewhere in the design process something went wrong. The end result is an overly rigid structure in which the cups and arms all fold in different directions in a confusing mess. The build itself is solid, utilizing metal joints and sturdy plastics. The 2” long strain reliefs on cable entry inspire confidence in the longevity of the cord, which is also notable for its length – a wholesome five feet.

Comfort (5.5/10): Again following in the footsteps of Sennheiser, Philips utilized a padded headband and soft pleather cups similar to those found on the Sennheiser PX200s. On paper, it’s a formula for success. Unfortunately, this pair of headphones is less comfortable than it looks. Not unlike the Audio-Technica ATH-ON3, the earcups of the SHL9500 have no rotational freedom about the vertical axis. As a result, they press hard on the back of my ears and cause pain after a few hours. 

Isolation (5/10): The SHL9500s are similar to the Panasonic Slimz and Soundmagics P10s in isolation. Most of the sound leakage is the result of poor fit rather than poor isolation by design

Sound (4.75/10): After experiencing the folding mechanism and fit of the SHL9500s the sound of the little Philips left me pleasantly surprised. It is well-balanced, smooth, and warm. Bass impact and tightness are both surprisingly good when these are made to fit properly. They do lose out to the similarly-priced Panasonic Slimz and Soundmagic P10s in high-end extension, detail, and soundstage - their signature is more fun and intimate. They are also noticeably less harsh and fatiguing than the Slimz, though there is a veil resulting in a slightly muffled mid-range. Still, they are pleasant-sounding portables overall, especially for Jazz/Blues/Lounge-type music.

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $24.99, Street Price: $20) Despite the questionable folding mechanism and my fit issues with them, I think the sound of the Philips SHL9500 justifies the rather modest price tag, providing a pleasant signature and performance notch or two above the average headphone at the price point.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10-28,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4.9ft (1.5m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible




(D7) Kanen KM-95: Though not particularly well-known around head-fi, Kanen produces dozens of models of earphones and headphones. Some are blatant copies of popular models. Others simply share OEM housings with other products. And some, like the KM-95, are unique offerings



Build Quality (5.5/10): The all-plastic KM-95 features very decent build quality for a $5 product. The tiny size and “brushed aluminum” stripe on the housings actually make them look quite stylish (clip-ons normally look quite goofy in my opinion). The plastic clips are fairly pliable and can swivel away from the housings. The j-cord is thick, covered with a nylon sheath, and terminated with a properly-relieved I-plug. Though I’m not a big fan of cloth cables on IEMs due to the microphonics usually associated with them, on a headphone they actually look and feel great. I also found the slits on the clips perfect for clipping the Kanens together when they are hung around my neck and not in use.

Comfort (7/10): The plastic housings are unbelievably light and the clips don’t pinch anywhere near as hard as those on the Philips SBC HS430, though they aren’t quite as soft and adjustable as those on the KSC75. The j-cord is a little too short after the split of my liking, but it really doesn’t cause any major discomfort.

Isolation: (2/10): Nearly nonexistent – the cups are too small.

Sound (3.5/10): The packaging of the Kanens promises “crystal-clear sound” which is much more comforting than the “Extra Bass” tag on the Philips SBC HS430. Surprisingly, the sound actually is quite clear and very well-balanced for such a cheap product. Bass is expectedly lacking, but I prefer good clarity to heavy bass when it comes to entry-level headphones. The sound is expectedly two-dimensional but fairly detailed. The Kanens do a good job of separating out instruments and generally not sounding like a muddy mess. They are also very forgiving of poor sources and recordings. I was quite impressed by just how inoffensive they sounded compared to what one might find for $5 on the store shelves.

Value (6.5/10). (Street Price: $5) With a price tag of under $5, shipping from HK included, the Kanens deliver good value for money with surprisingly clear sound, a handsome, portable, and comfortable design, and good build quality. They don’t actually feel like a $5 product and work very well with mediocre sources and material. So the next time you need a disposable portable that doesn’t sound like total garbage, the KM-95 might just be the ticket.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m) , j-cord; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A



(D8) Kanen KM-880: The KM-880 are undoubtedly a unique-looking offering in the land of budget-fi. After extensive listening, however, it is clear that their true value, if any, lies in using them as donor shells for more capable drivers.



Build Quality (5.5/10): Yes, the wood is real. The woodwork on the cups is actually quite impressive and very polished. However, all goes downhill from there. Though the mounts on the cups are metal, the faux hinges and entire headband are plastic. And not the nice kind, either – this is the sort of plastic that belongs in a Happy Meal. The long (1.9m) plastic cord is fairly thick and terminates in a well-relieved L-plug. The strain reliefs on the cup side, however, don’t seem to be attached to the wood very well 

Comfort (5/10): The wooden cups are fairly light but the pleather pads aren’t very soft and there is little flex in the structure, resulting in a fit that totally lacks adjustability. They also get quite warm if worn for prolonged periods.

Isolation: (5.5/10): If a good seal is attained despite the lack of adjustability, the KM-880 can actually attenuate some external noise. I found it difficult to do this as the cups don’t really pivot to conform to the shape of my head.

Sound (3.5/10): The sound is why the KM-880 is not deserving of a recommendation. Unlike their $5 brethren, the KM-95, the KM-880 are priced in the realm of the sublime Koss KSC75 and JVC Flats. But they fall flat, quite literally. The low-end is flat-sounding and muddy. Distortion is present at high volumes and the midrange lacks clarity quite badly. Vocals can literally get drowned out by instruments. Treble reproduction is no better – they do produce high frequencies but with zero authority and a good amount of harshness even after several hundred hours. The soundstage is okay in width but lacks depth, resulting in a congested sound. Overall the sound is pretty warm and not unpleasant at low volumes but tends to be uninvolving and not well-suited for serious listening.

Value (5/10). (Street Price: $17) The true value of the KM-880 lies not in their sound but in the possibility of using their unique wooden housings for some more deserving drivers. Raising their value a bit is the included standalone microphone, though voice quality is nowhere near as good as with my Zalman ZM-MIC1. For those purely after sound quality there are far better options to be had for the price and without the 3-week wait usually associated with overseas purchases.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 6.23ft (1.9m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 



(D9) Panasonic RP-DJ120: Utilizing the same housings as the EarPollution Nerve Pipes but bearing the venerable Panasonic name, I expected more from these budget ‘DJ’ portables.



Build Quality (4/10): The RP-DJ120 uses the same exact structure as the EarPollution Nerve Pipe, minus the funky color schemes and pads. It is made completely out of low-quality plastic but the construction is reasonable for a $20 headphone. The cable is thicker an much longer than that on the EarPollutions and features a proper strain relief at the plug end. The folding mechanism uses a third joint in the middle of the headband to make the headphones more collapsible, just like the Nerve Pipes.

Comfort (8.5/10): The cups swivel and pivot freely for a very comfortable fit. The pads are made of cheap pleather; fairly typical of a $20 headphone. The Zebra pads on my EarPollutions are softer and don’t heat up as quickly but the pleather is not terrible. The headband is unpadded but quite wide and the DJ120s are very light so it exerts nearly no pressure. There may not be enough clamping force to provide a secure fit for some users.


Isolation (5/10): The RP-DJ120 are vented at the back and leak a surprising amount for semi-closed headphones that cover the entire ear. 


Sound (3.5/10): I wouldn’t have been surprised if the Panasonics shared drivers with the Nerve Pipes in addition to the housings, but they don’t. Compared to the Nerve Pipes the RP-DJ120 sounds distant and veiled. Bass response is tighter and treble extension is improved but the mids suffer. The dry, recessed mid-range makes male vocals completely unconvincing. Like the smaller Panasonic Slimz, the DJ120s sound flat and a bit lifeless. They are smoother and more balanced than the Slimz but lack the detail and clarity. Not a worthy trade-off in my book but for a listener with treble sensitivity the DJ120 might be a better choice.

Value (4/10). (MSRP: $49.99; Street Price: $20) The Panasonic RP-DJ120 provide a different sonic flavor to the EarPollution Nerve Pipes in the same housing. Though comfortable and collapsible, they utilize a cord that is far too long for portable use, don’t turn any heads with their plain black or plain white color schemes, and are generally difficult to recommend over the similarly-priced JVC Flats and Panasonic’s own RP-HX50 “Slimz”.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 14-24,000 Hz
Impedance: 24 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 6.56ft (2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(D10) Coby CV-185: Coby is not a brand often-mentioned on head-fi, and with good reason – the company is known for slapping their name on anything with a soldering joint, good or bad. But the CV-185 is more than worthy of mention – in the realm of ultra-low-budget headphones it stands as one of the best values around.



Build Quality (5.5/10): The structure of the CV-185 is similar to that of the Denon AH-P372. The cups collapse by swiveling into the headband but the Cobys are missing the 3rd hinge in the headband, which makes them less portable but more robust than the P372. Like the Denons, they are made entirely of plastic, but the plastic is actually thicker and harder on the Coby set. There are no squeaks or rattles in the structure after several months of use. The 1.5m cable is fairly thick and terminates in a massive 3.5mm plug but lacks strain relief on cable entry. Though the hard plastics used on the Cobys may crack if dropped repeatedly, the initial build quality is very impressive for a headphone that retails for the price of a dinner salad.

Comfort (7.5/10): The headphones are fairly light and very adjustable. Clamping force is just right and the stock pleather pads, though not the softest, seal well. With some RadioShack flat foam pads, comfort increases twofold, rivaling the Grado SR60. One small annoyance for me was the headband adjustment mechanism, which doesn’t have enough grip. As a result, lifting the headphones by the headband extends it fully--hardly a notable detriment for a $10 headphone.

Isolation (5.5/10): With the stock pleather pads isolation is decent and leakage is nil. The adjustable cups seal well and the closed-back Cobys are large enough to cover my entire ear. Naturally, swapping the pads for foam cushions drops the isolation and increases leakage, though I still found the CV-185 perfectly usable outside.

Sound (5.25/10): After spending several weeks with budget models from Kanen and Panasonic, the CV-185 are a welcome relief, providing the clarity and definition that I’ve been missing. The sound has a crispness to it that is often absent in low-end products. Though they do distort at extremely high volumes, the Cobys have very good control over their low end and impressive extension. The midrange is articulate and clean, boasting decent instrumental separation and a slightly warm tonal balance. The treble is well-controlled, extended, and unfatiguing, at least with the stock pads.

At the suggestion of jant71, who lent me the phones, I also tried a set of RadioShack foam pads on the CV-185 and was immediately surprised by how much the sound signature changed with the swap. Soundstage width drops slightly as the mids and treble both seem to step forward, bringing more detail and a better overall balance. Bass impact decreases slightly while maintaining the same depth. With the foam pads the CV-185 tend slightly towards brightness. I find them to sound more fun and engaging this way, though some may prefer the inoffensive balance of the stock pads. The sound of the CV-185 is also more dependent on their positioning over the ear than most other headphone. Especially with the foam pads, it is easy to miss the ‘sweet spot’ and end up with tinny, uninteresting sound.

 

Compared to the Koss KSC75, head-fi’s perennial <$20 favorite, the CV-185 sound less muddy at the low end but also lacks the fullness, smoothness, and dimensionality of the KSC75s. They do boast better separation and a more emphasized midrange compared to the KSCs. With the foam pads they are also more balanced and neutral, with treble that lacks the bite and sparkle of the Koss phones but has a more convincing tonality. Though the Cobys may not quite best the KSC75s as all-around performers, they certainly go down swinging in my book.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $19.99; Street Price: $10) I have owned and heard quite a few headphones in my time here at head-fi, including many price/performance powerhouses, but few have made me stop and say, “Wow, these cost how much?”. In fact, the last time that happened was when I plugged my old KSC75s into a proper amp. Well, the CV-185 don’t require an amp to impress me the same way and with the addition of some foam pads can take on two significantly different sound signatures. For anyone in search of a comfortable budget headphone that leaks little and is wearable for several hours at a time, the CV-185 are definitely worth a closer look.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 22 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 5ft (1.5m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 


(D11) Altec Lansing UHP304: This headphone is notable largely for the sheer length of its proper name: Altec Lansing Upgrader Series UHP304 Airfit Titanium

Altec Lansing UHP304.jpg


Build Quality (6.5/10): The build of the UHP304 is very simple – two steel bands comprise the headband and the cups slide easily up and down. The bands are connected at the top by a small rubber pad, which also acts as a headband cushion. There don’t seem to be any weaknesses to the design and the headphones do look rather good in person. Strain reliefs are functional both on housing entry and the pudgy 45º plug The long, thick cable is nylon-wrapped for extra protection and has a volume control about halfway down. The pot in the volume control is not very good and creates massive channel imbalance at lower volumes so it’s probably best not to use it at all. Other than that, the build quality is very good.


Comfort (6.5/10): The twin-band construction allows for quite a bit of flex in the structure of the headphones, leading to a fairly compliant fit. The headphones are very lightweight and clamping force is average. The cloth pads are pleasant to the touch and don’t heat up much, though the rubber “padding” on the headband is about as soft as a bar of soap. Overall, the UHP304s aren’t quite as comfortable as the softer-clamping PortaPros and PX100s but far more so than most of the small portables.

 

Isolation (4.5/10): The UHP304 are quite compact and, as far as I can tell, semi-open. Leakage is present and isolation could definitely be better. Not for those who commute via subway.

 

Sound (4/10): While the styling and build of the UHP304 show an attractive coherency and purposefulness, the sound signature is decidedly confused. The bass is rather full and pleasant, punchy in nature and reasonably extended. Not much low-end grunt or rumble but good, if a bit muddy, bass. Sadly, things take a turn for the worst from there – the midrange is veiled and muddy, taking a step back from the bass in positioning and giving up a good chunk of clarity, especially towards the top. By the time we reach the upper midrange, the lack of clarity makes everything sound slightly compressed and run-together. On the upside, the mids are smooth, but the treble rolls off gradually and is devoid of sparkle. In terms of soundstaging the UHP304 is just competent - there isn’t much of a sense of space and the presentation definitely leans towards intimate/in-the-head. The overall sound is fairly competitive at the current $20 price but seriously lacks the crispness to justify the $75 MSRP.

                                                               

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $74.09, Street Price: $20): With street prices hovering around $20, the UHP304 are a much better deal than the MSRP would indicate. With decent build quality and comfort, futuristic styling, and passable sound quality, they make for a solid low-budget set. No, they don’t sound like a closed PortaPro, but the smoothness and relative lack of clarity in the midrange make them a pretty decent relaxation headphone, so long as you don’t mind every track sounding like a 128kbps mp3. They also come with a handy neoprene carrying pouch, which cannot be said for any of the other headphones in its price range. If appearance is a priority over sound quality and your budget is capped at $20, the UHP304 are definitely worth a look; they certainly do make my HD25-1 look like a grotesque plastic monstrosity.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz

Impedance: 32 Ω

Sensitivity: 110 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 4.9ft (1.5m); 45º Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 


(D12) Aiwa Shellz: Distinctive but sadly discontinued clip-ons from Aiwa, new pairs of which can still be found overseas and on eBay

 

Aiwa Shellz.jpg

Build Quality (6/10): The glittery shells of the Aiwas are made of plastic with a bit of metal trim. The plastic clips are not removable and cannot be reshaped like the KSC75 clips but do swing upward on a hinge for easier fitting. The transparent cabling is rather soft and flexible. Like so many mainstream clip-ons the Aiwas are j-corded and the cable terminateswith an angled plug.

Comfort (5.5/10): The Shellz fit similarly to the majority of clip-ons except for one thing – the clearance between the earpads and clips is quite small and my portly ears feel rather constrained when jammed in there. On the upside, the Aiwas are more secure on my ears than most clip-ons. The pads, too, are cloth rather than foam and actually feel quite pleasant.

Isolation (4.5/10): Quite typical for a medium-sized supraaural and better than the average clip-on

Sound (6.25/10): Glitzy looks and swiveling clips aside, sound quality is where the Shellz surprised me most. Released in Asia as the HP-EC1 and worldwide as the HP-EC101, 103, and 104 (color variations) back in 2001, the Shellz pre-dated the legendary Koss KSC35s by two years and the KSC75s – by four. Despite this, their sound is very competitive today. The Shellz remind me of the pricier Yuin G2A clip-ons – their sound signature is similarly balanced and controlled. The bass is tight and punchy – not as rumbly as that of the KSC75 but also not nearly as bloated. The midrange is slightly forward and vocals have good presence and air. Clarity and detail are excellent and the mids are extremely crisp, making the Koss clip-ons sound distant and slightly muddy in comparison. A slight bit of warmth is present but the Shellz are certainly closer to neutrality than the KSC75s are. The high end is sparkly and prominent, less laid-back than that of the KSCs but not nearly as grating as that of (un-equalized) Sony MDR-Q68s. Presentation is airy but the vocals are somewhat intimate due to the forward mids. Positioning and separation are quite decent and again remind me of the Yuins. Overall a very enjoyable sound signature and a steal at $15.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $19.99, Street Price: $15) Though the Shellz have been discontinued for some time, it is still possible to find NOS sets online, especially outside of the US. The isolation and build quality of the headphones are quite typical of low-end clip-ons and comfort suffers slightly due to the tight clips, putting the Shellz slightly below the Sony MDR-Q68 in overall usability. The sound, however, is surprisingly balanced, accurate, and enjoyable, making the Shellz worthy of an honorable mention here despite their age and poor availability. And yes, they do come in a toned-down black color scheme in addition to the glittery blue and red versions. Those looking for a stable and reasonably-priced clip-on for exercising or general use may do well to grab a set of the decade-old Aiwas before they’re all gone.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15 - 24,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.5ft (1m) + 2.3ft (0.7m) extension, j-cord; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A


 

 

(D13) Philips SHL1600: Ultraportable ‘Air Wear’ model from Philips which resembles the Audio-Technica ATH-ON3 


1e2ce76d_Philips+SHL1600.jpg

Build Quality (5/10): The construction of the SHL1600 is extremely simple – the one-piece plastic headband retracts partially into a pair of small cloth-covered cups, which rotate to fold flat. As with the ATH-ON3, the cups can only be rotated when the headband is fully retracted, which means that headband length has to be re-adjusted with each use. Seven notches are present in the headband so re-adjusting it every time is not difficult or time-consuming but annoying nonetheless. The rubberized cable is rather thin but resists tangling and seems to be relieved properly at either end.

Comfort (5/10): The fit of the SHL1600 suffers from the same problem as that of the ATH-ON3 – the cups are parallel to each other when the headband is extended and do not conform well to my ears. The headphones have a tendency to slide forward when jostled, which is annoying to say the least. On the upside, the SHL1600 weighs nearly nothing (a whopping 3 oz to be exact), clamping force is rather low, and the cloth pads are soft and pleasant to the touch.

Isolation (3.75/10): The SL1600s are absolutely tiny and provide little isolation. The headphones are most likely open-back underneath the cloth pads and leak quite badly at high volumes.

Sound (4/10): I was hopeful that the tiny Philips portables would redeem themselves when it came to sound quality. Sadly, the 30mm drivers used here can’t really compete with those used by Koss or even Sony in their budget headphones. The bass is muddy and unresolved despite not being particularly extended or impactful. The 40Hz spec of the frequency response seems right on the money – the Philips begin to roll off shortly past 80Hz and anything below 40Hz is inaudible at any volume. The midrange is the best part of the spectrum – it is warm and relatively clear, with decent detail at higher volumes. The treble is a bit recessed in comparison to the midrange but smooth and unfatiguing. Presentation is intimate but at least somewhat three-dimensional. Still, comparing these to something like the KSC75 or Aiwa Shellz is blasphemous – the sound, while not downright offensive, is decidedly lo-fi.

Value (5.5/10). (MSRP: $19.99, Street Price: $20) I purchased the SHL1600 hoping for a lightweight, compact, and comfortable portable with average sound quality to use on the go when the isolation of IEMs is undesired. Sadly, while I like the minimalistic design, the headphones do not provide a very stable fit for the same reason as many other small portables – there simply aren’t enough axes of adjustment or flexibility in the structure. The sound quality is rather average for a $20 headphone – not atrocious but not nearly as great as that of the KSC75s, Coby CV185, or JVC Flats. If neither sound nor stability is a priority, the SHL1600s may be worth picking up for their unobtrusive design and light weight. Otherwise, there are better options for the money.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 40 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding


 

 

(D14) Coby CV163: Rather odd-looking low-budget entry from Coby that fails to compete with the similarly-priced CV185 model on any level

 

Coby CV163.jpg

Build Quality (4.5/10): The headband of the CV163 is made out of a cheap-feeling black plastic; the glossy white cups look and feel much nicer. The only moving part aside from the tilting cups is the single hinge in the center of the headband. The headband also retracts very, very far. As a result, they really don’t take up too much space when folded despite not being truly collapsible and can still accommodate truly gigantic heads when fully extended. The single-sided cable is not properly relieved at the exit point but has a sturdy-feeling L-plug at the other end. A volume pot is present about halfway down the cord.

Comfort (7/10): Probably the best aspect of the headphones, the fit of the CV163 is quite decent due to them being very light and having low clamping force. The oval-shaped cups are supraaural and seal well due to the good range of motion and large amount of flex in the headband. They never feel particularly secure but I usually manage to forget that I’m wearing them after a while.

Isolation (5/10): Relatively low due to the negligible clamping force and vented cups.

Sound (2.25/10): After the excellent CV185, I expected the larger and more serious-looking CV163 to sound at least half decent for the asking price. Sadly, however, the CV163 deserves no better than the $9 I paid for them. The bass is big and bloated – impactful, but quite muddy and lacking resolution. Extension is decent but the deep bass is not informative. The bass bloat also affects the midrange, which is overpowered and somewhat muffled as a result. The treble is smooth and relatively inoffensive but rolls off early and lacks articulation. In fact, detail and clarity are sub-par across the range. The best thing I can say about the CV163 is that the tonal character is quite realistic and they don’t sound too congested when it comes to positioning.

Value (3.5/10). (MSRP: $10.95, Street Price: $9) Though quite comfortable and seemingly designed to accommodate every possible hat size, the Cobys are not brilliant performers in any way. It’s true that they cost mere pennies but it really isn’t that difficult to find a better headphone for ~$10 – the JVC Flats, Kanen KM-95, and even Coby’s own CV185 all make for a more satisfying listening experience than the bulky and somewhat unsightly CV163. My verdict: avoid.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 91 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided w/in-line volume control; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Headband hinge



(D15) Sentry HO268: Entry-level portable notable for having a single-sided cord

 

Sentry HO268.jpg

 

Build Quality (5/10): The all-plastic HO268 looks and feels like a dollar-store headphone but the lack of moving parts means there’s really very little to go wrong. The dual plastic headband flexes just enough to provide a comfortable fit and the single-sided cord is quite convenient for portable use.

Comfort (7/10): The HO268 offers no fitting enhancements aside from the adjustable-length headband but is lightweight and flexible enough to remain comfortable for quite some time. The oval pads are supraaural and a bit larger than those on the majority of entry-level portables. Clamping force is low-to-average.

Isolation (4/10): The HO268 is semi-open and really doesn’t isolate very much. The tight ear coupling provided by the oval pads helps some but the vents on the cups are quite limiting.

Sound (3.5/10): I wasn’t expecting much from a run-of-the-mill dollar-store headphone like the HO238 but compared to the recently-reviewed Coby CV163 found them at the very least usable. The bass is tighter and hits harder. Extension is decent on both ends of the spectrum and the HO238 resolves and separates better than the CV163 does. However it still has severe midrange recession and generally sounds very distant. The mids and treble aren’t as crisp as I would like, partly because the drivers are quite sluggish. On the upside, the sound is pretty smooth and even across the range and the distant presentation gives them a less congested feel.

Value (4/10). (MSRP: $14.99, Street Price: $15) The Sentry HO238 is far from the worst headphone I’ve heard and actually competes fairly well with some of the lower-end sets from Earpollution, Panasonic, Philips, etc. Its biggest problem is Coby CV185, which costs about the same but doesn’t have as many faults. If a single-sided cable is a must, the HO238 might be one to take a look at. Otherwise, I’d suggest giving it a pass.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 




 

 


 

Tier C ($20-50)




(C1) Sennheiser PX100: The second decent portable I bought after the KSC75s, the silky-smooth Sennheisers are a stark contrast to the aggressive sound of the Koss.



Build Quality (7/10): Designed to be highly portable, the PX100s easily fold into a tiny package and fit into the included plastic carrying case. Despite the multi-jointed folding mechanism, they feel rather solid and sturdy. The metal headband is both tough and flexible and there’s a feel of quality to the whole construction – every motion they make feels controlled one as the joints click smoothly into place. I expected them to be quite fragile at first, but there are no creaks or rattles after two years of use.

Comfort (10/10): Yes, they are that comfortable. The rotating earcups adjust perfectly to the angle of your ears, preventing the uneven distribution of pressure that can be such a problem with the other supraaural phones. The foam pads are a little thicker than the stock KSC75 pads and feel slightly smoother. The padding on the headband looks miniscule but gets the job done without making your head sweat. I’ve worn these for very long stretches on many occasions with no adverse effects.

Isolation (3/10): Same as the KSC75s and PortaPros, the PX100s are open phones. They let outside noise in and leak sound out. Though not as drastically open as, for example, Grados, they are still pretty useless as far as isolation goes.

Sound (6.75/10): I really like the sound of these - they are dark, warm, laid back, and very, very smooth – but they just don’t work as well as I would like with my preferred genres. The vocals are nowhere near as forthcoming as the KSC75s and they are missing the treble sparkle. They do, however, have bass that is tighter and better controlled than even my modded KSCs. The amount of bass is approximately the same, but the impact is just quicker and cleaner with the PX100s. I reach for these very often over the KSC75s though I prefer the Koss sound signature in general.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $59.99, Street Price: $35) The PX100s are very good headphones, worthy of my recommendation any day of the week. It is a matter of preference, however, whether these are better than KSC75 and PortaPros, On a very tight budget, I would go with the KSC75s, but give the choice I would probably take these even over the PortaPros as relaxed and balanced all-rounders. It should be noted that fake PX100s have popped up on eBay on occasion, so buyer beware.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:15-27,000 Hz
Impedance:32 Ω
Sensitivity:114 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:4.6ft (1.4m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding, collapsible



(C2) Audio-Technica ATH-ON3 “ONTO”: These were one of my first purchases after joining head-fi. At that point I owned the KSC75s and PX100s but was looking for something with a bit more isolation for use outside. A point to note is that there are dozens of Chinese fakes of these floating around. Most of the ones on ebay as well as anything in OEM packaging are definitely fake.



Build Quality (4/10): The marketing materials for these don’t lie – they really are lighter than air. They also look quite nice and feel pretty solid, though my first pair had naked wire visible through the strain relief on the 3.5mm plug. The cable is nice and rubbery, the earpads are very soft, and the earcups themselves are really tiny – about 2/3 the size of those on the PX100s and almost half the size of the JVC Flats cups. They are very stylish, unobtrusive, and easy to wear in public.

The biggest problem I have with them is the folding mechanism. The flat-folding mechanism only works when the headband is fully retracted, which is annoying because it needs to be subsequently re-adjusted when the headphones are next worn. While not an issue in most phones, re-adjusting the thin and slippery headband on the ONTOs can be a daunting task when on the move. Another problem is that the cups only rotate one way. Rotating them the wrong way can result in permanent damage to the structure. To make matters worse, the left/right markings are very hard to see (they are stamped in the plastic on the inside of the headband). A smoother, more robust folding mechanism would go a huge way towards making these actually feel like $100 headphones as suggested by the MSRP.

Comfort (3.5/10): The ONTOs are shockingly uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. The problem is that the earcups pivot neither vertically nor horizontally when the headband is extended. To compound the problem, the stiff round headband flexes little and clamps quite hard. The result is headphones that start to genuinely hurt my ears after just an hour of use. Of course your mileage may vary, but the design just isn't very accommodating. 

Isolation (5.5/10): Again, the design of the earcups hurts these headphones. The pads are quite soft and these are essentially closed-back headphones, but because the cups don’t pivot they cannot be flush against my ear. As a result, they cannot seal properly and rarely provide the isolation that they should.

Sound (4.25/10):  This is where the little Audio-Technicas redeem themselves a bit. Giving an allowance for these being closed headphones, they sound quite rich and full in the midrange. They are on the warm side, but unlike the equally-warm PX100s, these also slightly muddier and more aggressive. When a proper seal is achieved bass can have a very nice punch. Soundstage is rather small compared to the others, but they can still be quite enjoyable – certainly miles ahead of your average stock earbud or $20 drugstore headphone.

Value (3.5/10) (MSRP: $99.99; Street Price: $35) Though I admit that I may be biased by my comfort issues with these, the only way I can see Audio-Technica justifying that MSRP is by charging double for style points. While I very much like the look of these, I can’t help but think that even for the average iPod user concerned with style first and sound second, less sacrifices are to be made by purchasing the white PX100s or one of the myriad of available colors for the JVC Flats instead.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 12-23,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding



(C3) Soundmagic P10: The P10s are the first on-ear model from renowned budget IEM manufacturer Soundmagic. I have great respect for Soundmagic’s ability to craft budget earphones, so I really wanted to give their first portable a chance – so badly in fact that I resisted the daily temptation to cancel my order for a staggering 45 days while waiting for mp4nation to ship them out. 



Build Quality (5/10): The first time I removed these from the packaging it took me a good 20 minutes to figure out how to unfold them. Even with practice, they cannot be opened with one hand the way the PX100s can. Folded, they are amazingly small, surpassed only by the KSC75s. Unfolded they are about the same size as the others but noticeably lighter than even the ATH-ON3. The aluminum headband and plastic bits are thinner than those on the Sennheisers and JVCs and the hinges don’t glide gently into place like those on the PX100s. One area where these trump the competition, however, is the cord. It is very short (40cm, straight plug) and comes with an extension (1m, angled plug). It is quite thick but flexible, and rubberized to prevent tangling. Regrettably the P10s lack strain reliefs on cable entry. 

 

These seem to use housings identical to the Sony MDR-710LP. I would not be surprised if Soundmagic is the OEM for those as well.

Comfort (7.5/10): Comfort is definitely a strong suite of these phones. The headband provides the optimum amount of clamping – they fit securely but do not hurt for quite a while. The cushions are nice and soft and the numerous hinges also provide adjustability in the fit. I would give these a higher score but the flexion of the headband makes putting them on a hassle as they tend to fold themselves back up. They’re also not very easy to wear around the neck, which is something I do quite often with portables. The fit is also less than ideal for those with a smaller hat size as the earcups will end up being the only point of contact.


Isolation (5/10): The P10s are semi-closed headphones. They provide minimal isolation – slightly less than the JVC flats. On the upside, they leak less than the flats and about the same as the closed-back Audio-Technica ON3s.

Sound: (4.75/10): I quite like the sound signature of the P10. They are very laid back and smooth-sounding headphones. I would say that they are the astral opposites of the KSC75s. The soundstage is incredible for something semi-closed and costing under $30. Everything is well-placed, if somewhat recessed. The highs are subdued and natural. The mids are full but not overly forward. The bass is medium-low in quantity, but fairly punchy and very well-controlled. They are definitely closer to the PX100s in sound signature, but I can almost say that they are less fatiguing because of the wider soundstage and subdued presentation.

Value (6.5/10) (MSRP: $32.50; Street Price: $27). I think that Soundmagic once again has a strong competitor for the big-name companies with the P10 portables. They’re reasonably priced and cleverly designed. Though they are neither as visceral as the KSC75s nor as smooth as the PX100s, the colored, wide, and punchy sound of the P10s is lots of fun. The comfort deserves a second (or third) mention – the only reason they lose points there is that opening and getting them on can be a hassle.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-22,000 Hz
Impedance: 35 Ω
Sensitivity: 118 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 40cm (straight plug); 1m extension (angled plug)
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(C4) Yuin G2A: A few years ago a little-known Chinese company called Yuin entered the market of conventional earbuds with the PK line, becoming an instant hit among audiophiles and developing a large head-fi following for delivering sound quality not normally attributed to earbuds. Now Yuin is targeting the hi-fi clip-on market segment historically dominated by Koss and Audio-Technica.
 

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Build Quality (7/10): The biggest annoyance of the Koss clip-ons for me is the ear clips detaching themselves too easily. The G2As use better-quality plastics that reduce the occurrence of this problem. However, the clips are completely plastic, unlike the wire-and-rubber solution in the Koss’s, which means that if handled improperly there is a chance of breaking the clips themselves – something that will never happen with the KSC75s. Aside from the clips the build is very good. The brushed aluminum cups are sturdy and aesthetically pleasing and the cabling, though not particularly thick, is durable enough to get the job done.

Comfort (8/10): Initially, the Yuins are even more pleasing to the ear than they are to the eye. The pads are soft and the headphones themselves are very light. The only downside again is that the clips are actually completely plastic whereas the Koss KSC75 clips are rubbery with a thick metal wire and can be bent and shaped for the best possible fit. The Yuin clips cannot be reshaped.

Isolation (4/10): Despite being closed headphones the Yuins are not particularly suited for use outside. While they don’t leak too much sound out, they do let plenty in. The flat foam pads and lack of a clamping headband provide no seal whatsoever, so expect to have to turn the volume up on a busy street.

Sound (7/10): Perfect balance was Yuin’s design prerogative when engineering the sound of the G2As, and it shows. They are easily some of the most balanced and neutral headphones in the price range. The presentation is very natural, with an expansive soundstage and good instrument separation. They are also quick and controlled. The low-end extension could be better and it is not helped by the lack of a seal, but the highs are presented clearly and confidently. The balanced and transparent nature of these phones showed through all of my tests. They are also relatively laid-back and great for relaxed listening. I would not recommend them for hard rock or metal over the iGrados, but they work well with everything in my collection, from classical to electronica.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $49, Street Price: $49). Simply put, the G2A offers more for your hard-earned cash than most of the competition. Being a big fan of the Yuin PK line and their no-frills substance-over-style approach to design, I wanted to like these but feared that Yuin sacrificed some of that philosophy for pretty looks and brushed aluminum housings. Luckily, I don’t have to like these out of respect for the PK line. The G2A is a great headphone in its own right and worth every penny.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 60 Ω
Sensitivity: 110 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.6ft (1.1m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A



(C5) Grado iGrado: – The iGrado is the first mass-market China-made headphones by Grado Labs, utilizing the same drivers as the renowned SR60 full-size headphones in a more iPod-friendly package. On paper, the iGrados seem to be a formula for success – take the drivers from an established product almost unanimously praised in the hi-fi community, put them in a plastic enclosure that is cheap to manufacture, and drop the price below the $50 mark. In reality, though, the sub-$50 portables market is a crowded one, dominated by long-time heavyweight entries from the likes of Koss and Sennheiser, so I was very curious to see how the “baby Grados” stack up.

 

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Build Quality (5.5/10): Except for the metal Grado plaque on the back of the headband, there is nothing to suggest that the iGrados are the brainchild of one of the world’s premier headphone makers. The plastic is thick and sturdy, but with visible seams and other molding artifacts. The grilles and fake bolts in the headband are also plastic. Overall, the iGrados have none of the precision-machined feel of the Sennheiser PX100s and Panasonic Slimz but compensate with brawny plastics and a lack of moving parts to ensure longevity. The major letdown here is the cabling – the cable is one of the thinnest and most plasticky ones I’ve seen on a headphone and the plug can only be described as wimpy. Even the cable on the $1.99 Parts-Express phones inspires more confidence.

Comfort (5/10): The abovementioned lack of moving parts makes the fit of these pretty rigid. While Grado did a decent job of shaping the headphones to fit all head and ear sizes, they will definitely not be comfortable for everyone. I can wear them for about an hour before feeling the pressure on my ears, and just over two before my head starts to feel genuinely pained. On the upside, the fit is very secure and I feel that these would work better for exercising/running than most of the others here.

Isolation (2/10): These are completely open headphones with no isolation and quite a bit of leakage.

Sound (7/10): Despite the dollar-store packaging and blue-collar build, the iGrados still deliver that famous Grado magic. I can perceive a house sound similarity between these and both my SR125s and SR325is. They are, of course, nowhere near as refined as the others (costing 3x and 6x the price of the iGrados, respectively), but they still make you feel like you’re in the front row of a concert. The overall sound is forward and edgy. The bass is not as tightly controlled as the Yuins and a bit boomy, but still very full and enjoyable. It does not extend very deep but still has a nice warmth to it and can be opened up a little bit by cutting a quarter-sized hole in the pads (the “quarter” mod). The highs are slightly recessed although they still sparkle on occasion. The soundstage is average in size but instruments are well-separated and nicely positioned. All things considered, I think this is the best sound of the sub-$50 group for Rock/Metal-type genres.

Value (6.5/10). (MSRP: $49, Street Price: $49). There are two ways to evaluate the iGrados: as what is probably best the street-style sports headphone for the iPod crowd or as a portable little brother of the renowned Grado SR60 with a $30 discount. Either way, they come out to be pretty good value for money. Unfortunately they lose points in comfort and build quality – more thought could have been put into both. If you listen to Rock and Metal and are willing to sacrifice comfort or keep your listening sessions short, these will not disappoint.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:N/A



(C6) Koss PortaPro: First introduced in 1984, the Koss PortaPros have been a definitive staple of the portable headphones market for 25 years. They have survived through multiple model-line changes and their drivers have become the basis of the SportaPro and KSC55 street-style headphones and the KSC35/KSC50 clip-ons. A titanium-coated version of the PortaPro driver is also used by the KSC75, UR40, and KTXPro1.

 

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Build Quality (7/10): For 25-year old headphones, the design and build of these is very impressive. The folding mechanism is simple yet practical – there is only one hinge per side and it glides smoothly to lock into place. The headband is made of several strips of aluminum that slide over each other for adjustment. The PortaPros also look much better in person than they do in photos. The blue driver housings, for example, are barely visible from the side, and the metal accents on the cups look very contemporary. I personally prefer the look of these to the understated (read: boring) Sennheiser PX100s. The only area where more could be asked of Koss is the cheap feel of the plastics and the flimsy comfort zone switch. On the upside, these phones are covered by Koss’s no-questions-asked lifetime warranty just like the KSC75s.

Comfort (9/10): While I personally prefer the fit of the PX100s, differences are minute between these two. The PortaPros differentiate themselves by having a ComfortZone switch on each side of the headband. The three comfort settings (that’s two more than any of the other headphones here) transfer clamping force between the earpads and the soft temple pads on the headband right above the cups. In addition, the PortaPros’ earcups are attached to the construction using ball joints, which gives them a good amount of rotational freedom, similar to the PX100s. The headband is also adjustable in a unique way – the PortaPros are best put on with the headband at its longest and then adjusted to the perfect length. The sliding headband length adjuster can latch onto one’s hair, which is both painful and annoying.

Isolation (3/10): Not much different from the PX100s here, either – the PortaPros are quite open and very susceptible to outside noise.

Sound (6.75/10): Those familiar with the KSC75 will instantly note a familial resemblance between the two headphones. The high-end sparkle of the KSC75 is gone but the bass of the PortaPros is better-controlled and deeper. It’s still somewhat muddy compared to higher-end headphones, but it gives the sound a warm fullness that few of the other sub-$50 headphones I’ve tried here can match. The mids are very similar to those of the KSC75s – fun, forward, and aggressive. The bass occasionally creeps up on the lower midrange a bit. The highs are slightly rolled off, which makes the PortaPros less tiring than the KSC75s for prolonged exposure. They are also very forgiving of mediocre sources and recordings.

When compared head-to-head with their arch-nemesis, the Sennheiser PX100s, the PortaPros sound more exciting, forward, and aggressive. They have deeper and more copious bass. The PX100s are darker-sounding, have tighter bass, and are smoother overall. I find them to be slightly more natural/neutral than the Koss phones. They also have better clarity and more resolving treble.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $49.99, Street Price: $30). Not surprisingly, these are in the same boat as the PX100’s value-wise as well. Similarly priced, they are easily worth the asking price and are sure the feed the bass-loving demons in all of us. As for the eternal rivalry between these and the younger Sennheisers, it comes down to personal preference in the end. I will admit that I prefer the Sennheisers, but I love the PortaPros for the uncompromising retro-throwback design and sound that somehow feels like it would have been right at home in the 80s. 

 

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15-25,000 Hz
Impedance: 60 Ω
Sensitivity: 101 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(C7) JVC HA-M750 “Black Series”: The crown of JVC’s new ‘Black Series’ line of portable headphones, the M750 features carbon compound driver diaphragms and a resonance-free carbon housing.

 

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Build Quality (7.5/10): The design of the HA-M750 has a sort of purposeful hard-edgedness to it. From the rectangular cups to the forked hinges to the thick stainless steel headband, everything feels solid. There are no rattles in the structure and the folding action is smooth and precise. Though they don’t have the collapsibility of, say, the AKG K81DJ or JVC's older HA-S700, they fold into a reasonably small package that’s easy to store. The cabling is a little plasticky for my taste but long enough for portable use. The included extension is a nice touch.

Comfort (7.5/10): The headband of the HA-M750 is well-padded and wrapped in pleather. The clamping force is neither too soft nor excessive. The pads are made of memory foam and covered by an even softer material than the headband. The foam is quite compressible and does a very good job of conforming to the shape of one’s ear. However, the pads can “bottom out” when the foam is compressed, causing one’s ears to touch the grilles. This happens to me, and while it doesn’t bother me for a few hours, it can get tiring in the long run. The only other issue I have with the M750 is that the pleather pads can induce sweat, but that is no unexpected in a closed, circumaural portable.

Isolation (8/10): The JVCs do isolate a fair amount although the restricted range of motion of the cups as well as the fact that the pads “bottom out” on my ears probably don’t help matters. Rubber rings mounted on the grilles help improve isolation if they make a good seal with your ears

Sound (6.5/10): The sound of the JVCs manages to be very full and rich but at the same time surprisingly balanced. The bass is quite deep – extension is better than the K81Dj and about on-par with the CAL!s – and well-textured. If the mids weren’t so forward these could easily be classified as bass-centric cans, but the whole signature is pretty aggressive, which helps the balance at the expense of a mediocre soundstage. The midrange is thick and creamy, causing them to lag behind the K81Dj in separation and clarity. The timbre isn’t quite as natural, either, and the tone is on the dark/warm side of neutral. Overall, the M750 did a great job of keeping me entertained without being overly colored or absolutely true to the source.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $79.95, Street Price: $49). The JVC HA-M750 is one of the most reasonably-priced circumaural portable headphone in this thread and as such delivers great value for money. It provides an excellent compromise between comfort, isolation, portability, and sound. Though they don’t sound as natural as the AKG K81Dj or as fun and dimensional as the Creative Aurvanas, they aren’t lacking in any particular area and are cheaper than both, making them very easy to recommend.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 6-26,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 115 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m) + 6.56ft (2m) extension; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible




(C8) iFrogz EarPollution Nerve Pipe: – One of the several toxic-looking headphones produced by Skullcandy-esque headphone/accessory manufacturer iFrogz. The Nerve Pipe is sold with a twist - a customization tool for the headphones is offered on the iFrogz website. Yes, this monstrosity was custom-designed, though I gladly yield all credit for the creation to my girlfriend.

Behold the magnificence:



Build Quality (4/10): The Nerve Pipes are made completely out of plastic and feel rather toy-like in construction. There are some molding artifacts and sharp edges but the build quality is decent for a $20 headphone, with no squeaks or rattles. Cabling is rubberized slightly and not too thin but the strain reliefs at both ends are too hard for my liking. The best thing about these is probably the folding mechanism, which uses a third joint in the middle of the headband to make for a truly collapsible headphone. At their smallest the folded Nerve Pipes are fist-sized.

Comfort (9/10): The faux (I hope) zebra pads are surprisingly pleasant to the touch and the ear. The ‘fur’ is fairly short and smooth and offers an excellent compromise between (sweaty) pleather and (irritating) foam. The cups swivel and pivot freely for a very comfortable fit. I’ve actually managed to forget I was wearing these a few times. If there was one bone to pick, it’s that the headband is unpadded, but it is quite wide and the Nerve Pipes are light enough that it exerts very little pressure. Also, they may not have enough clamping force for people with smaller heads, though I had no problem keeping them on.

Isolation (4.5/10): The Zebra pads seal well though and isolation is on par with the other semi-closed portables. However, the Nerve Pipes are vented at the back and leak a surprising amount for supraaurals with ear-sized cups.


Sound (3.5/10): The sound produced by these is decidedly unrefined on the scale of audiophile portables. They are balanced and punchy, with bass that is surprisingly tame for a mainstream teen-targeting headphone and a recessed midrange. The low end is muddy but extension is fine, rolling off smoothly past 45Hz or so and the drivers are quite capable of coping with some bass boost EQ. Upper-end extension is average. The treble is actually quite natural-sounding and doesn't have a hint of harshness. The soundstage is average in width and lacking depth, resulting in an intimate sound that works decently well with the warm tonality. Overall, the sound really doesn’t impress in any particular area but isn't as harsh or boomy as some other cheap portables can be.

Value (5/10). (MSRP: $34.99, Street Price: $23) The EarPollution Nerve Pipes are extremely comfortable and decently performing portable headphones that boast customizable looks and a reasonable price tag. I found myself using these more often than I expected, mostly to watch a video in comfort. In fact, the warm and smoothed-over signature works very well for films and TV.


Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 30-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 120 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(C9) Philips SBC HP430: The HP430 (not to be confused with the HS430 clip-on) is another budget-priced portable from Philips - an ultralight DJ-style headphone that wows with its sound but offers little else.



Build Quality (4/10): The build quality of the SBC HP430 is a two-sided affair. On one hand there is a purposeful minimalism to the design that I rather like. The thick plastics and stitched headband look quite nice and the metal rotating mechanism is smooth and robust. The fitting of the plastics is sub-par, though, and the while structure tends to rattle and wobble. In contrast to the nice material used on the headband, the pleather on the pads is so thin it feels more like tissue paper. The thick cabling features an inline volume control and large molded strain relief on the 3.5mm plug. The cords have a fair bit of memory character, which is frustrating. I want to like the HP430 but I just can’t help feeling that it was designed to be a more upmarket headphone and then thrown together from cheaper materials to cut costs.

Comfort (7.5/10): The HP430 is extremely lightweight, clamps very little, and has generous padding on the headband and earcups. The resulting fit is pleasant but not nearly secure enough for my liking. An odd feature of the design is that the earcups swivel in the wrong direction in order to fold flat, which results in a less compliant fit than otherwise possible.

Isolation (4.5/10): The HP430 is a closed-back headphone that isolates a fair amount if a good seal is achieved. However, the light clamping force never really provides a great seal so plenty of noise leaks in and some sound leaks out.

Sound (5.75/10): If these have one definite strength it’s the sound. The clarity and balance are excellent with nothing standing out on the frequency response. The average-sized soundstage has good separation and positioning and the signature is tonally neutral. The bass is heard rather than felt unless a very good seal is achieved so they are likely too bass-light for the average consumer. Treble has equal presence and is neither too bright nor too harsh. It has a bit of edginess to it but I don’t expect great refinement from $30 portables. The mids can sound a little thin but there’s a delicacy to the sound which puts them above most of the competition. One thing that surprised was that these do benefit from a little extra juice – there are notable improvements to the sound when a mini3 or T4 is added between the headphones and my Fuze. Overall while these may sound boring to some, the lack of aggression when compared to the Ultrasone Zinos, KSC75s, and AKG K81DJs that I’ve been listening to lately is a welcome change.

Value (6.5/10). (MSRP: $39.95, Street Price: $30). The HP430 is another interesting entry from Philips that’s let down by the build quality and choice of materials rather than sound quality. The sound is well-balanced and boasts excellent clarity and quite a bit of detail. With a slightly tighter fit and a less shaky construction they could be serious competition for the PX100s and PortaPros. As it stands, they’re just a good-sounding portable that isn’t quite there all-around.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-25,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m) + 5.9ft (1.8m) extension; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding



(C10) JVC HA-S700: The smallest circumaural portable in my collection, the JVC HA-S700 can make some supraaurals look big. Its other selling point is the folding mechanism, which is even more accommodating than AKG’s patented 3D Axis system.




Build Quality (7/10): Behind the simplistic looks of the HA-S700 lies an extremely versatile folding mechanism that makes these headphones flat-folding and collapsible. When collapsed completely the headphones are incredibly compact. The headband is metal but the plastics feel a bit thinner than I would like. Cabling is typical JVC – of average thickness, not too prone to tangling, and with functional strain reliefs all around.

Comfort (8.5/10): The cups are small but deep enough that my ears don’t touch the grilles. The circumaural nature, pleather-covered memory foam pads and headband, and compliant fitting mechanism make these extremely comfortable. They can get a little hot with time and clamp slightly harder than the Creative Aurvanas, but that is a tradeoff I am willing to make for the significant gain in isolation.

Isolation (8.5/10): Underneath the pleather of the closed and circumaural HA-S700 are memory foam pads that do a great job of creating a seal. As a result they don’t leak at and all cut out a fair amount of external noise. Very impressive.

Sound (5.5/10): If there’s one aspect of the HA-S700 that doesn’t quite impress it’s the sound. Though nothing in particular is missing they sound slightly confused. As is the case with several other JVC models the drivers of the HA-S700 are angled with respect to the ear. This causes some odd positioning cues and a pretty narrow soundstage. The resulting sound is quite intimate and has a dimensional quality to it but makes it difficult to pick out instruments in space correctly. The bass is well-extended, impactful, and rather full-sounding, but not as tight as I would like. The midrange is reasnably clear but not as detailed as some of the competition. The high end can be a little harsh but stays out of the way for the most part. There is still some sibilance, but only at high volumes. The overall sound is warm but engaging – they are very easy cans to listen to on the go.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $59.95, Street Price: $30) The JVC HA-S700 is a very convenient headphone that provides a superb combination of build quality, isolation, and portability at a good price point. Though the sound is rather mediocre compared to some of the audiophile-grade portables in this lineup, the warm and slightly bassy signature of the HA-S700 works well outside where external noise tends to drown out bass notes. Compared to the newer HA-M750, the HA-S700 is less bassy, less aggressive, and more colored. It is also more comfortable, better-isolating, and cheaper than the M750s, making them a better buy for someone putting versatility above sound.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 8-25,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 101 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m) + 6.6ft (2m) extension; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible



(C11) Denon AH-P372: The smallest and possibly the most obscure headphone in Denon’s lineup, the P372 is a collapsible supraaural that’s far more serious about sound than its looks would indicate



Build Quality (6/10): The Denons are made entirely of plastic, including the headband, and don’t feel as solid as I would like. Molding artifacts and visible seams abound. On the upside, the swivel hinges on the cups and 3rd hinge in the headband mean that they can fold into a very tiny package – extremely convenient for use on the go. A small velvet varying pouch is included with the phones, as is an extension for the tiny (50cm) cable. With the extension the cable is average in length but feels a little cheap. It’s thin, plasticky, and has a lot of memory character. It kinks quite a lot, especially when stored wound up. Cable entry strain reliefs are also too hard for my liking.


Comfort (8/10): The cups of the AH-P372 are medium in size, similar to those on the AKG K81DJ, and outfitted with soft pleather pads. The pads on the headband do their job as well. Clamping force not excessive as on the AKGs but not completely unobtrusive, either. They are tolerable for some time but there may not be enough clamp in them for persons with very small heads.

Isolation (6/10): Isolation is on par with the majority of the competition. It does a good enough job of muffling external noise when music is playing but won’t make you completely oblivious to the outside world.

Sound (6.25/10): The overall signature of the AH-P372 is rather balanced and neutral. Nothing jumps out at first listen and yet nothing is notably missing. The low frequencies can deliver a good amount of impact when called for but are never excessive or intrusive. The midrange is very clear but can sound a bit flat and dull, almost recessed. Because of this I sometimes found myself cranking them up a few notches above my usual listening volume to bring out more mid-range detail. Vocals do have good texture and decent air; I just wish I could hear more of them. The treble is energetic but not at all aggressive. Harshness and sibilance are not present but the headphones can sound “plasticky” at times. Soundstaging is average, with decent instrumental separation on all but the densest tracks and good spatial tracking. I also found them quite revealing of poor sources and recordings – the AKG K81DJ played much nicer with 128k mp3s and my netbook’s headphone out.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $59.99, Street Price: $40) With their balanced sound, solid comfort and isolation, and decent build quality, the ‘baby Denons’ are worthy competitors to the likes of the K81Dj and Sennheiser PX200. They’re not as visceral as the AKGs or as tight and accurate as the Senns but sound very good in their own right. As far as supraaural portables go, they definitely earn their price.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10-22,000 Hz
Impedance: 35 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 1.6ft (50cm) + 2.6ft (80cm) extension; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(C12) Panasonic RP-HTX7: I've had my eye on these retro-styled Panasonic portables since long before my days at head-fi. With prices now close to the $30 mark, I figured it was finally time to take the plunge and see how the relatively popular and yet rarely-mentioned RP-HTX7s stack up.



Build Quality (7/10): The first thing that surprised me about the RP-HTX7 was just how small they are. I expected them to be closer to the size of the Creative Aurvana Live! but the RP-HTX7s are just barely circumaural with their deep cups and narrow pads. The headband is metal and the thin rods and small Panasonic badges give the headphones a rather precision-built feel, though they are far from delicate. The cups slide freely up and down the headband rods and the single-sided cable run up through the headband. The cable itself is thick, flexible, and terminated with a large 3.5mm plug. The fact that the headphones neither fold nor collapse also helps them feel more solid than much of the competition.

Comfort (7.5/10): Like the similarly-priced JVC HA-S700, the Panasonics are small circumaurals. Unlike the JVCs, however, the pads on the RP-HTX7s are not made of memory foam and the hard pleather headband is very thinly padded. In addition, the rigid structure of the RP-HTX7 provides nowhere near the level of adjustability that the JVCs offer. Still, the Panasonics don't clamp too hard and are comfortable for several hours at a time.

Isolation (8/10): The isolation of the RP-HTX7, like the comfort, is compromised slightly by the hard pads and rigid fit. Still, they cut out enough noise to be enjoyable in noisy environments and the bassy sound signature works well where outside noise would otherwise drown out low frequencies.

Sound (6/10): The sound of the RP-HTX7 falls perfectly in line with what is normally considered a 'fun' signature – big bass, big treble, and comparatively underemphasized mids. The bass hits hard, with decent extension and full body. Impact is a bit hollow but still very respectable for a headphone of this caliber. The low end is not exactly flabby, but not tight either. The midrange is slightly recessed in comparison but far from unbalanced. There is an almost negligible amount of bass bleed and some coloration to the mids. Tonally, they are darker than what I would consider neutral. Detail is rather typical of a $30 headphone – the RP-HTX7 certainly won't keep up with the Yuin clip-ons or the Philips SHP5400 in detail. Clarity is good, perhaps better than it should be with the low end these have. The treble is somewhat uneven, with a bit of harshness, but I've heard much worse. I'm generally sensitive to harshness and my well-burned-in set of the RP-HTX7 doesn't really bother me. The presentation is good, with decent soundstage width and slightly poorer depth. Though not highly resolving by any means, they do a good job of separating out instruments. All in all, the RP-HTX7 is an enjoyable listen that clearly belongs in the tap-your-toes category.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $59.99, Street Price: $30) As a small and stylish circumaural portable headphone, the RP-HTX7 offers plenty of bang for the buck. Well-built, isolating, comfortable, and fun to listen to, the Panasonics seem to have all the bases covered. At the price point their biggest competition is from the JVC HA-S700, which isolate better and are slightly more comfortable and a whole lot more portable. However, the Panasonics easily beat the JVCs in sound quality. While not refined by any means, the RP-HTX7 has the type of sound that begs you to crank the volume up. With a wide array of color schemes and iPod-friendly design, the RP-HTX7 really deserves more attention than it's currently getting.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 7 - 22,000 Hz
Impedance: 40 Ω
Sensitivity: 99 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 6.6ft (2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A




(C13) Sony MDR-Q68LW: Sony’s tiny budget-oriented clip-ons stray away from the traditional bassy warmth of low-end Sony products and deliver bell-like clarity in a weightless and unobtrusive form factor.


Sony MDR-Q68.jpg


Build Quality (5/10): The cups of the MDR-Q68 feel quite solid despite their small size. One of the main selling points of the is the retractable cable mechanism, which spools the cable into the earcups at the touch of a button. The spool takes up some room inside the cups, making them thicker than those on the Yuins G2A, but the Q68 is still very unobtrusive. The earclips swivel forward and out, make the headphones very easy to put on. When the earclips are displaced, the cord winding mechanism is disabled – a nice feature to prevent accidental spooling while wearing the headphones. The clips themselves are made of a tough but still somewhat flexible plastic covered partially in rubber. The left/right markings are stamped on the earclips and very difficult to see but, luckily, are completely unnecessary as the headphones are asymmetric. By far the biggest weakness of the construction is the noodle-thin cabling, which is undoubtedly necessitated by the size of the spool. The strain relief on the skinny 3.5mm plug, on the other hand, is extremely flexible and can take some abuse.


Comfort (9/10): Despite housing spring-loaded cable spools, the Q68 cups are no heavier than those of the Koss or Yuin clip-ons. The adjustable rubberized clips do a great job of keeping the headphones in place without pinching the wearer’s ears, though they may still irritate those who are not used to clip-ons after some time. My biggest functional complaint with the Q68 is the short 3.3ft cable.

Isolation (3.5/10): The isolation of the Q68 is typical for a small supraaural headphone. Though closed-backed, the little Sonys don’t really cover my entire ear, resulting in a lack of attenuation. 

Sound (5.5/10): I’ve owned several low-end Sony headphones in the past, including some street-style portables and clip-ons. My lasting impression of them was that of excessive warmth, which is what I originally expected from the Q68. I was surprised, however, to find that out of the box these little Sonys lean heavily toward the cool side of the spectrum. They have tight and surprisingly extended bass with low rumble and quick decay times. Bass bleed is nonexistent as the low end transitions smoothly into the midrange. The mids boast bell-like clarity and possess surprising liquidity and detail for a headphone of this caliber. So great is the clarity that these Sonys make my PX100 and HD238 sound positively veiled in comparison. There is a noticeable peak in the frequency response in the upper mids/lower treble but somehow the sound remains inoffensive. Make no mistake – the treble of the Q68 is extremely pronounced. However, harshness and sibilance are not an issue for me. The treble is reasonably extended and boasts similar clarity and detail to the midrange, all the more so due to the greater emphasis. 


Overall, the sound of the Q68 out of the box is slightly thin, almost anemic, sacrificing body for clarity and speed. The low end sounds slightly ‘sucked out’ and the treble is quite present. However, the little drivers Sony used in these are quite responsive to equalization. A bump at the low end and a dip in the lower treble take the Q68 to a whole other level, providing punchy bass with surprising gobs of texture and well-behaved, if still slightly aggressive treble. With a small time investment the little Sonys can be made quite balanced while maintaining the crystal clarity that sets them apart from much of the competition in the sub-$30 category. What cannot be equalized is their presentation, which can be summed up as “mediocre depth, decent width”. The soundstage of the MDR-Q68 is indeed relatively wide, with distance usually conveyed quite well. Depth, however, could clearly be better and the headphones don’t do a great job of layering out the sonic cues and instruments, resulting in a slightly flat sound. Personally I have no problem with a $25 set of headphones sounding slightly flat but I will admit that the PX100s have better dimensionality.


Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $29.99, Street Price: $23) The frequency response of the MDR-Q68 is far from even and a good equalizer is highly recommended to get the most out of them. When properly EQ’d, the MDR-Q68 is very complete package that beats out the similarly-priced competition in clarity, speed, and detail. Taking into account the convenience and portability of the retractable cable, the Sony MSR-Q68 is a great set of portable headphones, providing unparalleled compactness and a very unobtrusive look and feel coupled with a sound that leans toward the analytical side of the spectrum. In my experience analytical portables are tough to come by at any price – of all the portables I’ve owned, I can count the ones I’d call ‘analytical’ using the fingers of one hand, and none of them fall in the sub-$30 bracket. As such, the MDR-Q68 stands alone in a pretty populated market and that alone makes them worthy of consideration.


Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 16 - 24,000 Hz
Impedance: 24 Ω

Sensitivity: 108 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.3ft (1m), j-cord, retractable; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 



(C14) Equation Audio EP3070: Small circumaural portable from Equation Audio’s Alpha series, reminiscent of the JVC HA-S700 both in looks and functionality.

Equation EP-3070.jpg


Build Quality (7/10): Though the form factor of the EP3070 resembles the JVC HA-S700, the build is quite different. The headband is thicker and more heavily padded and the whole structure feels more solid due to the lack of rotating joints. The cups are rubberized on the outside for a nice “grippy” feel and the vents are completely nonfunctional – the headphones are fully closed. Like the higher-end Equation RP-15MC, the detachable locking cable of the EP3070 is quite sturdy and longer than may be ideal for portable use.

Comfort (8/10): Like the JVC HA-S700 and Panasonic RP-HTX7, the EP3070 is a small circumaural headphone with deep cups and narrow pads. The EP3070 features conventional leather pads which are slightly less comfortable than the memory foam used by the JVCs. In addition, the lack of rotating joints makes the fit of the EP3070 slightly less compliant overall but I don’t find them uncomfortable in the least. 

Isolation (8/10): The isolation of the EP3070 is quite impressive, losing out by a hair to the JVC HA-S700 again due to the lack of memory foam padding. They block out enough outside noise to be used on a busy street without cranking up the volume.

Sound (5.75/10): Like the higher-end RP-15MC, the EP3070 is a warm and bass-heavy headphone at heart. The bass is surprisingly deep but not as hard-hitting as with the RP-15, leading to a more balanced sound overall despite a similar dip in the treble. The impact produced by the EP3070 is rather soft in nature, with little aggression. There’s definitely plenty of bass but it doesn’t sound well-defined at all times and sometimes overshadows the midrange. The midrange itself is smooth and clear; not as forward as with the RP-15MC but extremely lush and pleasant nonetheless. The presentation is intimate and positioning could certainly be better. Clarity and detail are both a notch below what the RP-15 is capable of. The treble is laid-back but also quite clear and smooth. All in all the little Equations are never harsh or sibilant, which makes them great cans for lengthy sessions on the go where fidelity may take a back seat to comfort and lack of fatigue.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $49.00, Street Price: $30) Sadly, the EP3070 have been officially discontinued for several months. However, NOS sets can still be found in the inventories of several online retailers and Equation Audio dealers. With the $30 price tag that the EP3070 carried prior to being dropped, these little headphones are wonderful value for money, providing a similarly functional approach to the JVC HA-S700 without as great of an SQ sacrifice when compared to similarly-priced open sets. Comfortable, well-isolating, and quite sturdy, the EP3070 is a very good casual listening headphone for frequent travelers.


Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 9.84ft (3m), single-sided, detachable; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(C15) Equation Audio RP-15MC: The smallest and cheapest headphone in Equation Audio’s EarTools line, the RP-15 is designed for audio professionals in need of a rugged and portable solution for mixing and tracking.  


cdbec3b8_Equation%20EP-15mc.jpg


Build Quality (7/10): Easily the most striking aspect of the RP-15MC is metallic orange paint, which they share with the higher-end RP-21. The paint gives the otherwise plastic RP-15 a touch of class. The headphones look and feel sturdy but not bulletproof. The molding of the plastics isn’t perfect and most of the frame is plastic, including the hinges. On the other hand the locking detachable cable is quite robust and can be replaced with an M-Audio cable or perhaps even a DIY solution should something go wrong - a big plus for me.

Comfort (5.5/10): Though Equation Audio calls the RP-15MC circumaural, they can hardly be considered such in the traditional sense. The elongated cups are very nearly large enough to encapsulate my ears but the pads are far too shallow for a proper circumaural fit. Clamping force is quite high and there is no rotational freedom to the cups. As a result, the RP-15MC is painful for me to wear for more than two hours at a time. The (lack of) comfort is very similar to the AKG K81Djs, which score a little bit higher only because their 3D-Axis system makes their fit more adjustable. It should be noted also that the RP-15MCs are not for those who like to wear their headphones around the neck when not in use.

Isolation (7.5/10): The isolation is good but not great. The soft pads and hard clamping force give the RP-15s a lot of attenuation potential, which is subsequently canceled out by the fact that the cups just aren’t deep enough. They still attenuate a good amount but with deeper cups and slightly more directional freedom they could’ve been competition for the K81Dj/HD25-1 when it comes to isolation. 

Sound (6.5/10): Though Equation Audio’s entire EarTools headphone line is designed for professional use, it’s hard to imagine that the sound signature of the RP-15MC makes them well-suited for serious production work. Like the AKG K81Dj, the RP-15MC are bass monsters and lean slightly towards warmth and darkness. The bass is extremely hard-hitting and the 38mm drivers can move lots of air on the right tracks. Listeners of club-type music will undoubtedly be enamored with the way these present low notes. For those who like extremely tight and controlled bass, one of the higher-end Sennheiser portables or the Beyer DT235 may be a better fit.

The midrange of the RP-15 is slightly forward, unlike that of the similarly bass-heavy AKG K81Dj. It is surprisingly detailed and very smooth – not a hint of harshness or sibilance is present.  Vocals are placed front and center and the overall presentation is extremely engaging - these are definitely a front-row tap-your-toes of headphone. This is accentuated by the intimate presentation which at times can sound downright condensed – there is very little space between instruments in the way the RP-15 positions them. The treble is accurate and smooth but slightly laid-back in character and devoid of sparkle and air. This makes the already-intimate signature sound quite closed. Though the RP-15s do carry a certain pleasant depth to their sound, they sound noticeably stuffy when compared to a more spacious-sounding headphone (the ATH-M50, for example).  On the upside, the Equations are extremely forgiving of low-bitrate tracks. If I had to recommend a headphone specifically for 128kbps mp3s, the RP-15 would very likely be it. But even for properly-recorded tracks, the little Equations are fun and engaging little portables.


Value (8/10). (MSRP: $99.00, Street Price: $49) Retailing for around $50 online, the RP-15MCs are a surprisingly handsome and very well-rounded headphone. Closed, collapsible, and well-isolating, they are a practical option for those who don’t mind a bass-heavy sound, competing directly with the AKG K81Dj and JVC HA-M750. Like the K81Dj, the main weakness of the RP-15 for me is comfort, or rather lack thereof, which is caused by the hard clamping force and shallow cups. For music lovers whose listening sessions rarely go over two hours, the RP-15MC are definitely worth looking into.

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 50 - 21,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 9.84ft (3m), single-sided, detachable; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible




(C16) Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 GM: Lightweight and stylish clip-ons from Japanese audio giant Audio-Technica


Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 GM.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): The construction of the ATH-EM7 is sturdy, yet delicate. The shells are a combination of forged aluminum and plastic and look just as handsome in person as they do on photos. The dual wire-and-rubber earhook construction is probably the weakest part of the headphones. The clips of the EM7 are unique in being adjustable vertically to optimally position the drivers on the ear. In addition, the earhooks swing outward and back into place with a satisfying metallic click to allow for easy removal of the headphones. The modular j-cord is nylon-wrapped and rather thick. It doesn’t tangle and should be more than sturdy enough for everyday use. A soft carrying case is provided with the headphones.

Comfort (8/10): The dual earhook system of the EM7 takes some getting used to but the stretchy rubber hook does a good job of taking pressure off the thin earhanger. The vertical-axis adjustment of the earhooks and spring-loaded swinging hinge ensures a great fit every time and they stay on rather securely compared to the larger and heavier Koss clip-ons. The cloth pads are also wonderfully cushy and very smooth. However, the EM7 is heavier than the similarly-small Sony MDR-Q68 and I never quite managed to forget that I’m wearing the Audio-Technicas the way I did with the Sonys.

Isolation (4/10): Typical of a small clip-on but the spring-loaded fit and soft pads help the EM7 isolate a bit more than the Sony MDR-Q68 and Kanen KM-95.

Sound (6.5/10): The sound of the ATH-EM7 GM seems fittingly lightweight an airy for the small and stylish clip-ons. The overall signature of the EM7 reminds me strongly of Audio-Technica’s BA-based earphones, namely the ATH-CK10. While nowhere near as nuanced and detailed as the CK10, the EM7 is very quick and clear. The bass is fast, tight, and accurate. It rolls off rather early at the bottom but the level of control makes the low end of my Koss KSC75 seem woolly and slow in comparison. Because the bass is so subdued, the midrange and treble are the focus of the EM7’s presentation. The mids are forward and transparent. Out of the box, the upper midrange of the EM7 was a bit overpowering, giving them a somewhat honky and metallic sound, but seemed to settle in over time. The clarity and detail certainly make it all worthwhile. Those who are sensitive to peaks in the upper mids and lower treble should probably avoid the EM7 like the plague, though.

The treble of the EM7 is crisp and detailed. It possesses bell-like clarity and sparkle and is generally presented very confidently. Top-end extension is very good and the midrange/treble-heavy balance results in a somewhat cold tone. The overall presentation is relatively wide and a bit distant. The Audio-Technicas generally convey space quite well but lack depth, resulting in a flatter sonic image. All in all, while the signature of the EM7 may be fatiguing for some, there is no questioning its technical proficiency – the headphone may not be as warm and fun as the Koss clip-ons, but it is more detailed, controlled, and accurate and, while I don’t see myself giving up the KSC75 for casual listening, I admit that the EM7 GM is the better critical listening device.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $99.99, Street Price: $50) Released back in 2002, the Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 GM may be one of the oldest models in this lineup but it is by no means outdated. The machined aluminum finish and innovative two-axis earclip system are just as fresh and functional today as they were nearly a decade ago and the EM7 is more secure and comfortable than the majority of my clip-ons, past and present. The sound, too, is rather refreshing next to the bass-heavy Koss and Sennheiser models in the price range – the EM7 is clear and detailed, giving up the warmth, intimacy, and fullness of the KSC75/35 for a faster and more controlled sound but personal preferences can, as usual, tip the scale either way.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 14 - 24,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 109 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 1.64ft (0.5m) + 3.28ft (1m) extension, j-cord; straight plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

Big thanks to slntdth93 for the chance to try these phones!
 

 


(C17) Maxell DHP-II: Little-known circumaural headphone from Maxell "discovered" by a fellow Head-Fier

Maxell DHP-II.jpg

Build Quality (6/10): The construction of the DHP-II is quite typical of entry-level consumer headphones. Except for a thin aluminum band used to reinforce the headband, they are made mostly out of a lightweight plastic, not unlike the JVC HA-S700. There is very little to go wrong as the headphones are not fully collapsible, though the cups do rotate 90 degrees to fold flat. The long and thin cord is nylon-sheathed for extra protection but strain reliefs on either side are minimal. On the whole, while I don’t feel comfortable tossing the DHP-II around like I do with some of my DJ phones, they don't need to be babied, either.

Comfort (9/10): The DHP-II is a small and light circumaural headphone similar in size to the JVC HA-S700 and Panasonic RP-HTX7. Though the DHP-II is not collapsible, the joints all have a wide range of motion, allowing for a secure and stable fit. In addition, the headband and earcup pads are just as soft as the wonderful memory foam padding of the HA-S700 and clamping force is fairly low, resulting in great long-term comfort.

Isolation (6/10): The DHP-II isolates surprisingly well for a semi-open headphone and does a respectable job of preventing leakage at moderate volumes levels. However, the similarly-small JVC HA-S700 and Equation EP-3070 absolutely wipe the floor with the DHP-II when it comes to actual attenuation.

Sound (7/10): Always skeptical and yet hopeful when it comes to lo-fi brands, I truly had no idea what to expect when I shelled out upwards of $30 on a set of the DHP-IIs. After a month with them, however, I can say that the massive amounts of praise the headphones have received were fully warranted. At its core, the DHP-II is an uncompromisingly fun-sounding headphone. The most striking aspect is the robust and full-bodied low end. The bass of the DHP-II is deep and punchy, not as tight and clean as with something like the HD25-1, but more than good enough for the asking price. It is well-extended, hits reasonably hard, and remains accurate throughout. I wouldn’t call the low end of the DHP-II particularly aggressive but it is ever-present and definitely acts as a solid foundation for the rest of the sound. Though there is a slight mid-bass hump, most of the time the low end of the DHP-II stays clear of the midrange, which is smooth and competent, if not highly emphasized. The mids are clear and quite detailed, positioned front and center as they should be and boasting just a touch of warmth. For my blues and jazz tracks it’s quite difficult to imagine a better signature than that of the DHP-II.

As for the treble, it is crisp and very clear without a shadow of harshness. Sibilance is similarly absent. Top-end extension doesn’t quite nudge the HD25-1 or ATH-M50 but is good for a $40 headphone. Same with the detail – the ~$100 DJ headphones from Audio-Technica, Denon, and Ultrasone I’ve been using lately simply offer more of it – but at a hefty increase in price (and bulk). On the whole, the DHP-II sounds rather delicate and refined – and even more so when the price tag is taken into consideration. The presentation is equally likable – the DHP-II gives a convincing sense of space and has good dimensionality, though its soundstage is definitely not the largest as far as portables go. Imaging lags behind high-end sets, but for the price and within the confines of the intended sound signature, the Maxells do nearly no wrong.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $89.99, Street Price: $40) The Maxell DHP-II is yet another outstanding sub-$50 buy for anyone in search of great-sounding, extremely comfortable, and reasonably portable headphones. Though calling a headphone ‘Digital’ as Maxell did with the DHP-II is a major pet peeve of mine, I have to admit that the engineers definitely did their research when designing the unit. It’s far from the best-built portable out there but with care it seems like it will last. Isolation is impressive for a semi-open set and the unit is surprisingly well-packaged with a soft carrying pouch, 1/8” adapter, and handy extension cord to supplement the 6’ long nylon-sheathed cable. The sound signature is relentlessly fun, with slightly boosted bass, and makes the DHP-II an extremely enjoyable headphone for movies and music alike. For $40, this one’s a keeper.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10 - 30,000 Hz
Impedance: 50 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 6ft (1.8m) + 6ft (1.8m) extension, single-sided; straight plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

 


(C18) Earsquake PIXI: Earquake’s striking take on the ‘AirFit” design pioneered by the Audio-Technica ATH-ON3

Earsquake PIXI.jpg

Build Quality (6/10): As with the aging ATH-ON3, the PIXI is built around the one-piece metal headband. The headband takes the form of a sturdy metal tube and retracts partially into the cups, which can also fold flat once fully retracted. This presents a small usability issue as the headband settings are lost whenever the headphones are stored away. Luckily, the headband is notched and finding the right fit again is usually quite easy. The cups on my (white) PIXI are made out of plastic but heavily rubberized, making them quite pleasant to the touch and seemingly durable (although the purple version is the one to buy for looks). The rubberized cable is quite similar to those use by Earsquake’s IEMs. It is thin but resists tangling well and has proper strain relief. An inline volume control is present partway down the cord, though the pod feels flimsy.

Comfort (4.5/10): The fit of the PIXI is very similar to that of the ATH-ON3 - the cups are parallel to each other when the headband is extended and there is little flexibility to the structure. As a result, the cups do not conform well to my ears no matter what I do. The clamping force of the headband is a bit lower than with the ATH-ON3, making it possible to wear them comfortably for more than an hour at a time. They still need adjusting from time to time, and the tiny cups with thick pleather pads make it especially important to position them on the ears properly for optimal sound quality.

Isolation (5.5/10): Isolation is quite decent for a tiny portable – the PIXI does cut down on leakage very well and even manages to attenuate a small amount of outside noise when they seal properly.

Sound (4.5/10): Like the Audio-Technica ON3 and Philips SHL1600, the Earsquake PIXI requires a good seal to sound its best. For me this meant that I had to hold the headphones to my ears for some of my listening but of course YMMV. Without a proper seal, the PIXI sounds shrill and distant – unpleasant to say the least. With the right fit, however, the headphones fill out nicely, offering up their intended sound signature. The bass is by far the best part of the sound signature – deep, full-bodied, and surprisingly impactful for a headphone as small as the PIXI. The low end is not the most accurate I’ve heard but certainly provides one of the more visceral experiences in the price range without sounding uncontrolled. The midrange is in good balance with the low end – perhaps even a bit forward - but lacks crispness and refinement. There is some unevenness and vocals can sound just a touch shrill at times. For a $25 headphone, however, it’s all well and good as far as I am concerned. The treble, too, is a bit grainy and can be harsh at times but it is prominent and extension is decent. With a poor seal the harshness is heavily exaggerated but with a proper fit the treble, bass, and midrange all stay fairly balanced.

My only major gripe with the PIXI is the presentation, which is quite two-dimensional. Next to the admittedly pricier Maxell DHP-II, the PIXI sounds flat and seems severely lacking in depth. Instrumental separation and layering are nearly non-existent with the PIXI. Tonally, the headphones are slightly warm due to the deep and resounding low end but the prominent treble prevents them from becoming dark and muddy bass canons a-la Philips SHL1600. The small soundstage, hard-hitting bass, and aggressive treble make the PIXI sound like a low-budget version of the Sennheiser HD25-1. Of course the HD25-1 works because it carries detail and clarity that put most other headphones to shame while the PIXI doesn’t. Still, as far as ‘AirFIt’-style headphones go, the PIXI is easily the best I’ve heard.

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $24, Street Price: $23) The Earsquake PIXI is yet another small portable headphone that pursues fashionable aesthetics and a minimalistic form factor in lieu of comfort and isolation. The PIXI did surprise me with the excellent finish – the rubberized earcups on my pair are very pleasant to the touch and Earsquake uses a special curing technique to make sure that the paint on the blue and purple models doesn’t chip or crack over time. To make sure that the headphones don’t get scratched up when stored away, a soft cotton protective pouch is included as well. From a functionality standpoint, the PIXI are fairly stable once fitted properly but may require a bit of fiddling for the best sound. Comfort, while better than that of the aging ATH-ON3, is still typical of a small and fairly rigid headphone. The sound quality is slightly above average in the price range, impressing with clarity, balance, and bass depth but not with the harshness and lack of soundstage depth – nothing atrocious but I don’t think the Koss KSC75 has much to worry about as head-fi’s favorite budget set. For those thinking of picking up an ATH-ON3 or one of other fashionista ultraportables, I highly recommend grabbing the PIXI instead.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 16 Ω
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 4.26ft (1.3m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding




(C19) Earpollution ThrowBax: Panasonic RP-HTX7 knockoffs from the Earpollution headphone line of iPhone accessory manufacturer iFrogz.


Earpollution ThrowBax.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): The ThrowBax are pretty faithful to the Panasonic RP-HTX7. However, the housings are clearly not sourced from the same OEM as those of the Panasonics. While similar cosmetically, the RP-HTX7 feels solid and precisely put-together. The ThrowBax are a bit loose and wobbly right out of the box. Very little force is needed to adjust the headband and the headphones rattle if shaken. On the upside, the ThrowBax do have a thicker single-sided cable than the Panasonics and the ‘hand-stitched’ headband is more well-padded.

Comfort (7.5/10): The Earpollution ThrowBax are small circumaural headphones. Their pads are as firm as those of the RP-HTX7 but the Throwbax are a bit lighter and have more headband padding. However, Earpollution decided that the bare plastic grilles of the RP-HTX7 are unsightly and stuck a 1/4” thick sheet of padding into the cups between the driver grille and the wearer’s ear. The padding touches my ears when the headphones are worn, and those who are irritated by shallow cups may have issues with the ThrowBax (but not with the Panasonics they are based on). For everyone else they should be fairly comfortable for a couple of hours at a time.

Isolation (6.5/10): For a closed circumaural headphone, the isolation of the ThrowBax is surprisingly mediocre, almost to the point at which I’d be tempted to label them semi-open rather than closed. This is corroborated by severe amounts of wind noise that the headphones let through when donned while running/cycling.

Sound (4.5/10): In contrast to the surprisingly-balanced Subjekt HD-AK1000, the Earpollution ThrowBax are typical teenager-oriented budget headphones. Their sound signature is bass-heavy, with plenty of (somewhat muddy) impact. They do roll off quite severely under 35Hz but the mid-bass boost diminishes the roll-off enough for the low end to have adequate depth and rumble. That said, the peak of the frequency response still occurs between 100 and 150Hz – quite typical of the sound signature these seem to be striving for.

The midrange is a bit more forward than that of the HD-AK1000. The bass does bleed into the mids on occasion but the midrange and treble are hardly noteworthy otherwise. On the whole the ThrowBax are smooth and far from neutral. The Earpollutions also don't image particularly well and the poor dynamics don’t help matters, either. On the whole the sound quality of the ThrowBax is decent for the asking price and miles ahead of the similarly-priced Earpollution Nerve Pipes. However, next to a proper bang/buck champion like the Maxell DHP-II, the Earpollution set sounds distant and muffled.

Value (6.5/10). (MSRP: $29.99, Street Price: $20) The Earpollution ThrowBax attempt to emulate the venerable Panasonic RP-HTX7 but with the price point of the Panasonics coming down into the lower $30 range over the past year, buying the Earpollution version makes little sense. Aside from being vastly superior in sound quality, the Panasonics are (slightly) better-built and better-isolating. There’s really no downside to buying the RP-HTX7 over the ThrowBax aside from the (small) price difference.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 108 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A




(C20) Subjekt X! HD-AK1000: Colorful and impossibly cushy headphones from Radius Corp (of Atomic Bass fame) clearly styled after Sony’s XB-series headphones.


5afb8dbd_a53cd64a_SubjectXi.jpg

Build Quality (5.5/10): While clearly styled to look like the Sony XB-series headphones, the AK1000 is about 10% smaller than the MDR-XB500 and, unlike the ‘genuine’ Sony sets, is made entirely out of plastic. The plastic cups have a rubbery matte finish that is rather pleasant to the touch but the plastic forks and unpadded headband are a far cry from the quality of the Sonys. The pads are as good as the ones found on the Sonys but the cable is plasticky and has some memory character.

Comfort (9.5/10): The all-plastic AK1000s lack the headband padding of the MDR-XB500 but are also a bit lighter and have less clamping force. The resulting fit is about as comfortable as wearing two featherweight pleather-covered pillows. Like the XB500s, the Subjekts can get a bit hot and sweaty after prolonged use.

Isolation (6.5/10): Isolation is quite similar to that of the Sonys – not great for a large circumaural headphone but not terrible in the grand scheme of things.

Sound (4.5/10): Though Radius publishes no specifications for the HD-AK1000, I expected the Subjekts to mimic the Sony XB500 in sound signature in addition to cosmetics. I was surprised, however, to find a poised and well-balanced sound in place of the XB500’s bass-centric tendencies. Low end extension is slightly poorer on the Subjekts but the overall bass curve is more linear. The softer bass impact causes the headphones to sound more refined and more controlled although from a technical standpoint the bass is no better than that of the Sonys. Overall the headphones sound a little ‘mushy’ but very smooth and non-fatiguing.

As with the XB500, the mids are slightly recessed but the lower quantity of bass makes this far less obvious with the Subjekts. There is some warmth in the midrange and clarity isn’t quite as good as with the Sonys. There’s also a small dip towards the upper mids that eliminates some of the shine and luster from certain female vocals. Vocal sibilance is a non-issue and smoothness all the way up is top-notch. There’s no real air or sparkle to the treble but no harshness, either. The presentation of the AK1000 is a bit two-dimensional but not terrible. Soundstage width is average and depth is somewhat poor, though they still make the similarly-priced Earpollution Throwbax sound a bit congested.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $79.99, Street Price: $29) On the whole, though it may not seem like I am particularly complementary of the HD-AK1000, they really do very little wrong for a consumer-oriented $25 set. I expected them to sound terrible but they are on-par with most of the larger sets in the price range. The MSRP is, of course, ridiculous and they are full step behind the Sony MDR-XB500 in build quality and attention to detail but the pillow-like fit is indisputably comfortable. As headphones for movie viewing and casual music use, where comfort is a priority, the funky-looking Subjekts are at the top of the food chain. For pure sound quality, I would recommend stretching for the Maxell DHP-II instead.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 


(C21) Soundmagic P20: Following in the footsteps of the P10, Soundmagic’s second portable headphone ditches the asinine folding mechanism of its predecessor but shoots itself in the foot in the process

Soundmagic P20.jpg


Build Quality (5.5/10): Like the older P10, the Soundmagic P20 is a featherweight metal-and-plastic affair. Instead of the dual-hinge design used by its predecessor, the P20 uses a twin-band headband (like the Koss PortaPros) and cups that rotate up into the headband (a-la Denon P372 and ATH-FC700). The folding mechanism is easier to use and feels more robust but still cannot be operated very easily with one hand. Folded up, the P20s are extremely compact – so small that they can almost fit in some of my large IEM cases. Gone also is the modular cord of the P10s, replaced with a standard dual-entry 4-foot cable and an additional 3-foot extension cord. Cable quality is unchanged – the cord is still rubbery and reminiscent of those used on the Soundmagic earphones but lacks proper strain relief on housing entry.

Comfort (6.5/10): The P20 is light enough to make the Philips ‘AirWear’ SHL1600 seem heavy. The twin-band headband is not quite as nice as that on the PortaPros but clamping force is light and no discomfort results from it. Unfortunately, the modified folding mechanism of the P20 means that the cups lack rotational freedom compared to those of the P10 and the low weight means that nothing forces the headphones to seal with the ear. I have to apply constant pressure to the cups with my hands to maintain a consistent fit – annoying, to say the least.

Isolation (4.5/10): Due to the abovementioned seal issues, the P20 isolates even less than the P10 does, putting it on-par with the majority of small closed headphones.

Sound: (5.25/10): As is the case with most supraaural sets, the sound quality of the P20 is highly dependent on how well the pads seal with the listener’s ear. For me, this required holding the headphones down for critical listening – otherwise the bass was nearly non-existent at comfortable listening volumes. When fitted properly, the P20 is quite punchy but there’s not much depth or weight to the bass compared to higher-end sets. According to specifications, the P20 should be more extended at the low end than the older P10 but I just don’t hear it – bass roll-off below 40Hz is very noticeable, though not unreasonable for a set in this price range. On the upside, the P20 is generally a very balanced headphone. Clarity is impressive, especially in the treble, and detail does not disappoint for a reasonably-priced portable. Like the P10, the P20 is smooth-sounding and not very forward but it does have strong upper mids and lower treble and can be a little piercing at high volumes. Top end extension is quite good but the presentation leaves a bit to be desired – the soundstage is medium in width and lacks slightly in depth, resulting in mediocre separation and layering. It’s not a bad presentation but definitely one that screams ‘budget’ headphone. On the whole the P20 could be on-level with its main competitors if not for the fit interfering with sound quality, at least for me.

Value (6/10) (MSRP: $36.50; Street Price: $31). The Soundmagic P20 is a competitive budget-level headphone, boasting appealing portability, impressive balance and clarity, and reasonable build quality. It is let down, however, by the fit, which makes it difficult to maintain a seal. With a more flexible fitting mechanism the P20 might well have been a real winner in its price class but as it stands, the headphones are simply too light for their own good. If you have a smaller head or ears that are perfectly parallel to each other, the P20 may be worth a shot. For anyone else, fitting issues will likely cause the P20 to yield to the competition as a total package.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15-22,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 1.2m (straight plug); 1m extension (angled plug)
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(C22) MEElectronics HT-21: First portable headphone from one of Head-Fi’s favourite budget IEM manufacturers

Meelectronics HT-21.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): The HT-21 is a compact supraaural headphone similar in size to the Panasonic RP-DJ120. One thing that sets it apart is the single-sided attachment of the cable – something rarely seen in small budget headphones. The cord itself is slightly thicker than average. The hockey stick-shaped 3.5mm plug is similar to those found on some of Meelec’s IEMs and provides a good compromise between the more durable L-plug and the more convenient (at least for some devices) I-plug. The construction of the headphone itself is mostly plastic, with stainless steel used for the headband. The glossy finish of the cups does retain fingerprints but they are hardly visible on black. The folding mechanism is reminiscent of the AKG K430 and provides plenty of adjustment axes. 

Comfort (9/10): The pleather used on the pads and headband is of the thicker variety similar to that used by Audio-Technica headphones – namely the ATH-ES7 and ATH-FC700. The headband padding is quite thin but the headphones are light enough that it isn’t a problem. Clamping force is quite low and the multi-axis folding system allows the HT-21 to conform to the wearer’s ears comfortably at all times. Being supraaural the HT-21 never quite disappears completely but remains inoffensive for as long as I wear it. An additional plus is the 1.3m cable length, which feels much less constrictive than the 1.1m cord on the similarly-sized AKG K430 even with my (average) height.

Isolation (5/10): Being a medium-sized supraaural headphone, the HT-21 is hardly noise-isolating despite the closed design. Much of the isolation is traded off for comfort with these, though they are superior to open sets in isolation and especially leakage.

Sound (6.5/10): Like Meelec’s multitude of reasonably-priced in-ear models, the HT-21 makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s a budget headphone when it comes to technical capability. The headphones are not the most resolving and lack a bit of detail and dynamic range compared to pricier sets like the AKG K430. On the whole the HT-21 is an aggressive headphone with impactful bass (for a small supraaural can) and slightly forward mids. The low end is controlled and quite accurate. The bass isn’t the most extended but there’s a fair amount of punch and good texture throughout. Impact is well ahead of that provided by the Soundmagic P20 and the HT-21 can take far more bass boost on the equalizer before distorting. The Audio-Technica FC700, on the other hand, has better depth and a touch more impact but sounds significantly muddier, boomier, and slower than the HT-21. In addition, the FC700 has its midrange, especially vocals, obscured by the low end on bass-heavy tracks while the forward mids of the HT-21 work to prevent such obtrusions. The balance and overall sound quality of the HT-21 is much closer to the higher-end ATH-SQ5 than the entry-level FC700.

The midrange of the HT-21 is crisp and clear. The headphones lean slightly towards the cool side of the spectrum on the whole. Clarity is similar to the Soundmagic P20 – very impressive for a <$40 portable set. The slightly forward presentation and good clarity of the Meelecs mean that there is no veil over the midrange, making the softer-sounding Maxell DHP-II seem ‘blanketed’ in comparison. As presented by the HT-21, vocals lack some fullness but guitars have plenty of presence and ‘bite’. The HT-21 is quite energetic on the whole so those looking for a laid-back listening experience should be looking elsewhere.

The treble of the HT-21 is similar to the midrange but a bit less forward. It is crisp and clear. Extension is decent. The HT-21 is a fairly well-balanced headphone on the whole and the treble works to balance out what would otherwise be a slightly warm signature. There is a bit of unevenness in the lower treble that results in the HT-21 accentuating the harshness and sibilance in some recordings, especially at high volumes. Properly-mastered tracks usually sound fine.

The soundstage of the HT-21 has surprising air for a closed set but layering is mediocre and depth is lacking compared to many open sets. The overall sense of space is still quite decent, especially next to similarly-priced closed sets. The Soundmagic P20, for example, is made to sound distant in comparison. On the whole the HT-21 is not something one would purchase for the soundstage alone – its true strengths lie in clarity and bass control – but as a secondary characteristic the spacious and airy presentation is quite enjoyable.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $39.99, Street Price: $40) Yet another reasonably-priced piece of portable audio equipment from Meelectronics, the HT-21 is a set that places as much emphasis on convenience as it does on sound. Lightweight and comfortable, it will easily fit into a laptop bag or simply rest unobtrusively around the wearer’s neck. Clamping force is fairly low, resulting in average isolation, but the HT-21 stays in place securely. The construction of the headphone is solid too, with above-average quality of plastics and a simple folding mechanism. The sound quality won’t land them in direct competition with any high-end portables but puts up a good fight against budget-minded competitors from mainstream brands. The balance is skewed very slightly towards the bass and upper midrange, with punchy, controlled notes down low and energetic guitars and vocals. All in all the HT-21 is a great headphone for those who can enjoy a prominent upper midrange or who listen at moderate volumes like I do. In my opinion the HT-21 is another budget set done right by Meelec but, as always, be mindful of the signature before buying.

My full review for the HT-21 can be found here.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4ft (1.2m), single-sided; 45º plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible




(C23) Arctic Sound P281: Budget-level DJ headphone from PC components manufacturer Arctic Cooling

Arctic Sound P281.jpg

Build Quality (5/10): Like most DJ headphones, the Arctic Sound P281 is collapsible and flat-folding. Oddly, the hinges are spring-loaded to the headphones won’t stay flat unless constant pressure is applied. The headband boasts cloth padding and the earpads are covered in a thin but soft pleather. The headband extension mechanism is too loose for my liking - leaving the P281 hanging on my headphone rack results in the headband extending fully and requiring readjustment the next time the headphone are worn. There’s also quite a bit of flex in the structure, which makes the unit feel cheap. The coiled cord is thick and light but lacks the toughness of coiled cables used by real studio and DJ headphones.

Comfort (7/10): The P281 is rather lightweight and not too large but unfortunately Arctic’s marketing team seems to misunderstand the concept of a circumaural headphone – even though the P281 is billed as such, the soft pads are nowhere near large enough to fully enclose an adult’s ears. The vented nylon mesh headband, on the other hand, is soft and comfortable. The large amount of flex in the structure and low clamping force mean that the P281 doesn't provide a particularly stable or secure fit and won't cope with any headbanging.

Isolation (6/10): Isolation is average for a supraaural closed headphone – the P281 isn’t too large and clamping force is quite low.

Sound (3.75/10): The sound of the P281 is slightly atypical of low-end DJ headphones, which are usually muddy-sounding and overly bass-heavy. The P281 is bright, crisp, and relatively clear. The bass is not very deep but it is rather punchy compared to that of the similarly-priced Panasonic RP-DJ120. The low end of the P281 does not encroach on the mids too much and generally sounds rather pleasant. The midrange is recessed slightly in comparison to the bass but since the overall presentation of the headphone is very forward and aggressive, this is hardly noticeable. Detail is lacking noticeably compared to the Koss KSC75 but is decent for the price. The treble is a bit uneven and will probably sound slightly fatiguing to some but for me the amount of sparkle is rather healthy. Sibilance and harshness don’t rear their ugly heads except where present on the track, which is admirable.

In terms of presentation the P281 is forward and aggressive. It is a bit two-dimensional and imaging is confused and imprecise. The tonality is off as well, making the headphone sound bleak and desaturated. Still, on the whole the presentation is not bad for a budget set – most of the similarly-priced models from big electronics brands don’t fare much better.

Value (5/10). (MSRP: $26.95, Street Price: N/A) The build and sound quality of the Arctic Sound headphones may not be quite as brilliant as those of sets from better-known manufacturers but for those in search of a DJ-style headphone on the cheap, the P281 is not the worst choice out there. The P281 is also covered by Arctic’s 2-year warranty despite the mediocre construction quality. Purely for sound quality, however, the Koss KSC75 and Coby CV-185 are still better options.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 109 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 7ft (2.5m), single-sided, coiled; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible



(C24) dB Logic HP-100: Entry-level supraaural equipped with a proprietary volume limiter for the hearing safety of kids and adults alike

dB Logic HP-100.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): Despite looking sizeable in photos, the HP-100 is a rather small headphone with collapsible cups and a three-piece (a-la Koss PortaPro) retractable headband. Though the headphones are closed, the cups are covered with a painted metal mesh and feel quite sturdy. The glossy plastics of the folding structure aren’t quite as thick as those used on the AKG K430 but still quite decent. The metal headband is similar to that found on the Koss PortaPros and the soft and supple dual-entry cable is impressively thick below the y-split.

Comfort (7.5/10): The auto-adjusting headband of the HP-100 has the same issue as that of the Koss PortaPro – hair tends to get caught in it. Other than that the design is quite comfortable for a small headphone. The padding of the semi-spherical cups is adequate and the cups have a wide range of motion. Clamping force is a bit higher than average but gets spread out evenly along the pads and the headphones remain comfortable for hours at a time.

Isolation (7.5/10): The closed cups, compliant fit, and tight clamp of the HP-100 all make for a well-isolating little headphone. Leakage is nonexistent and the passive isolation is easily good enough for music enjoyment on above-ground public transport.

Sound (6/10): The main selling point of dB Logic’s headphones and earphones is the proprietary volume-limiting circuitry (dubbed Sound Pressure Level Limiting, or SPL2), which is intended to maintain safe volume levels at all times. Though the company won’t reveal the underpinning principle of the technology, the intended result is clear – distortion-free damping of the output when the input power becomes high enough to produce an SPL dangerous for the human ear. To test this claim I performed an experiment on the HP-100 similar to the way I tested the EP-100 earphone in the multi-IEM review thread. First, the low-volume output of the headphones was matched by ear (with SPL meter verification) to a variable-impedance set – in this case an AKG K430 - at a relative volume of 10 on my Fiio E7. From there I donned the K430 and increased the volume until my ears started bleeding (so to speak). Next came the HP-100. I found the dB Logics to increase in output volume much more slowly than the K430 with a matching starting point. Unlike the EP-100 earphones, the HP-100 never hit a dead-stop limiter but even at maximum volume the output SPL was tolerable. As far as I can tell, feeding extraordinary amounts of power to the HP-100 introduced no clipping or distortion to the signal. Yes, it is possible to drive the HP-100 hearing damage-inducing volume levels, but it will take a lot more effort than with any other headphone.

Sound-wise the HP-100 takes the same approach as the EP-100 IEM, doing its utmost to avoid offending with its signature. The bass is surprisingly deep and a moderate mid-bass hump gives the low end some warmth. It is not the tightest low end, nor is it the quickest, but gives tracks a pleasant low-end rumble. Impact is slightly softened compared to hard-and-fast sets such as the Sennheiser HD25-1 but pleasant on the whole. On the other hand the muddy ‘boom’ of sets like the ATH-FC700 is missing as well and the bass doesn’t bleed up into the lower mids. The midrange itself is smooth and warm, not forward but not particularly recessed. The leaner-sounding Meelec HT-21 is both clearer and crisper but lacks the full-bodied lushness of the HP-100. The Maxell DHP-II is more similar in the midrange but has more bass, causing the mids to sound more distant compared to the HP-100. The treble, similarly, is smooth and inoffensive. The sparkle of the HT-21 is missing but so are any and all treble spikes. Indeed, the treble of the HP-100 takes a half-step back compared to the midrange and stays out of the way when it isn’t called on. Extension is so-so but no worse than the ever-popular Koss PortaPro and other headphones that emphasize lower half of the spectrum. Avoiding listening fatigue seems to have been the goal with the signature of the HP-100.

The presentation of the headphones is coherent and likable. The soundstage is average-sized and there is a better sense of expanse than with the AKG K430. Layering and separation are adequate for a closed headphone at the price point but the usual trade-off with isolation applies. Those looking for a limitless soundstage will likely be better off with an open set. A last point to note – though the SPL-limiting HP-100 is not lacking in sensitivity, it suppresses hiss better than anything else in my portable collection. If I had to pick a set for an application with a noisy source, it would be the HP-100.


Value (8/10). (MSRP: $39.95, Street Price: $40) Like dB Logic’s EP-100 IEM, the HP-100 provides a likable sound signature in a convenient and handsome form factor. The SPL2 volume-limiting circuitry is functional but at the same time quite transparent to the user. The relatively high isolation of the headphones adds to their attractiveness as a total package - for those who do not require their headphones to be capable of reaching 100dB SPL, the HP-100 could really be quite a good match.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 3.93ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible




(C25) Audio-Technica ATH-FC700: highly portable supraaural headphone designed to replace the ATH-FC7 in Audio-Technica’s extensive lineup

Audio-Technica ATH-FC700.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): The ATH-FC700 is very similar to Denon’s AH-P372 in size, form factor, and price. Like the P372, the FC700 can collapse into a tiny portable package and comes with a soft carrying pouch for safe transport. Unlike the Denons, the FC700 has a metal headband with a spring-loaded adjustment mechanism which, while annoying at first, actually works when it comes to fit (for best results, the headband of the FC700 should be fully extended prior to putting on the headphones and then allowed to retract to size). The FC700 also has a modular cord which is better than that of the P372 and identical to the one found on the ATH-SQ5.

Comfort (8/10): The FC700 is on the large side for a supraaural headphone and features soft pads covered with thick pleather of the kind found on the ATH-ES7 and Meelec HT-21. The headband is unpadded although a bit of plastic covers the metal band. Clamping force is fairly low but the spring-loaded headband mechanism keeps them secure and the cups have a fair amount of freedom for a compliant fit.

Isolation (6/10): Isolation is on-par with the majority of small closed-back portables. The FC700 does a good enough job of muffling external noise when music is playing but won’t make you completely oblivious to the outside world.


Sound (5.75/10): The sound signature of the FC700 is quite typical for a <$50 portable headphone – big bass, warm mids, and relaxed treble. The bass is impactful and full-sounding but gives up too much control for my taste. It’s a little slow and muddy, making the overall sound somewhat mushy and overly soft despite the fact that the FC700 actually has pretty strong bass impact. Kick drums have a nice warmth and fullness that puts the higher-end ATH-SQ5 to shame but when things get busy the SQ5 pulls ahead very quickly with its superior speed and separation. Expectedly, the bass can intrude on the lower midrange, which is just a touch recessed in comparison to that of the SQ5 or Meelec HT-21. The combination of slight midrange recession and strong bass gives the FC700 a slight veil but on the whole the mids are warm and pleasant. Clarity and detail lag slightly behind the similarly-priced Meelec HT-21 and the headphones tend towards intimacy when it comes to presenting vocals and instruments.


The treble transition is fairly smooth, with no prominent harshness or sibilance, but the high end can sound a touch grainy. The treble is competent but detail and extension lag slightly behind the ATH-SQ5 and Meelec HT-21. Presentation-wise the FC700 is spacious but a little flat-sounding, lacking the depth and separation of the pricier SQ5. Tonally, the FC700 is the darkest of the three headphones – closer to something like the Koss PortaPro – but also the least fatiguing. On the whole, the ATH-FC700 is a fun listen with no pretensions to high fidelity. It obviously wasn’t designed to compete with the pricier SQ5 or ES7 models in sound quality, but it does well for the price.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $69.99, Street Price: $42) While not nearly as impressive from a sound quality perspective as the pricier ATH-ES7 and ATH-SQ5 models, the FC700 is a solid entry-level closed can. Available in a multitude of color options, the FC700 is also more stylish than competition from the likes of Denon and Sennheiser. However, while most Audio-Technica headphones manage to find a good balance between style and substance, the FC700 is biased towards the former. For those who just want a bass-heavy portable for use on the move, the FC700 is comfortable, reasonably isolating, and built well enough for every day use. For sheer sound quality, there are better options.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10-24,000 Hz
Impedance: 40 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 1.6ft (50cm) + 3.3ft (1m) extension; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible

 

 


(C26) Sennheiser PX90: New entry-level ultralight sitting below the PX100-II in Sennheiser’s PX line.

Sennheiser PX90.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): The construction of the PX90 is very straightforward – the entry-level PX-series model gives up the collapsing structure of the PX100 and PX200 in favor of a simple flat-folding design. The lack of moving parts means that the PX90 is lighter even than my old PX100. It also means that there is very little to go wrong - the ultra-thin headband can be bent but it’s just as easy to bend back into shape. There is no headband padding per se but Sennheiser includes a small, removable bit of rubber meant to be placed around the top of the headband for extra friction. The cups take on the appearance of brushed metal but are actually plastic. The foam pads have a very slight bowl shape and on average are a bit thicker than PX100 pads. The cabling is similar to the previous-gen PX100, in that it is dual-entry and fairly thin, but the PX90 is equipped with an L-plug in place of the usual I-plug.

Comfort (9.5/10): The featherweight PX90 is equipped with the thinnest and most flexible headband of the PX range – an inherent advantage when it comes to wearing comfort. However, the cups don’t quite have the same range of motion with the PX90 as they do with the PX100 and PX200. The headband lacks padding but the light weight of the PX90 makes this a non-issue. Overall comfort is on-par with the PX100-II – not at all offensive for those accustomed to supraaural headphones

Isolation (3.5/10): The open design lets in tons of outside noise but the PX90 does seem to leak just a tad less than the PX100-II.

Sound (6.5/10): The MSRP of the PX90 slots it neatly below the PX100-II in Sennheiser’s portable lineup; figuring out where it belongs in terms of sound quality is far less straightforward. At first listen, the sound of the PX90 is slightly nondescript – it lacks the emphasized, aggressive mid-bass of the PX100-II and the detail of the PX200-II. The inefficiency of the headphone is immediately noticeable – it requires around 30% more volume than the PX100-II and is one of the very few portable headphones that allow me to max out my Cowon J3 without damaging my hearing. I do, however, anticipate many complaints of insufficient volume from the average consumer. Interestingly, I don’t think the PX90 gains a whole lot more speed or resolution when amped than the PX100-II so pushing it with a dedicated amp, while beneficial, won’t be worth the investment.

Inefficiency aside, the sound of the PX90 is quite pleasant and likable. The low end takes the middle ground between the heavy midbass of the PX100-II and the tight, punchy, and somewhat rolled-off bass of the PX200-II. There is a slight but noticeable boost in impact over the PX200-II – not enough for the PX90 to be called ‘bassy’ but sufficient for most listeners. The PX90 still retains a certain softness of note, making its bass sound ‘rounder’ than the tight and fast punch of the PX200-II, but isn’t lacking notably in speed or resolution. The midrange is smooth and clear. The diminished bass emphasis (compared to the PX100-II) results in a slight reduction in midrange coloration but the difference isn’t great – the PX200-II is still significantly more neutral in tone than the PX90. The mids of the PX90 are more laid-back than those of the PX100-II. Indeed, the overall presentation of the PX90 puts the music a few feet farther from the listener than with the PX100-II (and much farther than with the in-your-face Meelec HT-21). Detail and clarity lag slightly behind the higher-end PX-series headphones but compete well with the HT-21 once the aggressiveness of the Meelecs in bringing detail forward is discounted.

The treble is smooth and inoffensive. Like the midrange it is not quite as clear or detailed as with the other PX-series phones, but not too far off, either. It is also a bit less prominent than that of the PX100-II and a lot less prominent than that of the HT-21. The presentation is a bit distancing and separation lags behind the pricier PX models. There’s also not much air to the sound and the layering could be better but for the asking price it’s nothing I can’t live with. On the whole, I think that the presentation – like the sound signature – aims to be all things to all people, and I can see where Sennheiser is coming from with that – those who know exactly what they are looking for will probably end up buying one of the higher-end PX models anyway.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $39.95, Street Price: $40) The PX90 is a slightly enigmatic addition to Sennheiser’s portable line, slotting in below the PX100 and PX200 models and yet requiring more juice than either. Far less complicated in construction than the higher-end sets, the PX90 is lightweight and sturdy enough for portable use. The sound of the baby PX is balanced and competent, allowing it to keep up with the pricier PX100-II at its best. The only listeners I would caution away from the PX90 are those who tend to listen at high volumes – chances are good the PX90 simply won’t fit the bill for SPL.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 108 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m), single-sided; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding




(C27) Koss KSC35: The original Koss clip-on, the KSC35 shares drivers with the long-term budget favorite PortaPro model and has come back from the dead after being discontinued, reinstated in the Koss lineup by popular demand

Koss KSC35.jpg

Build Quality (5.5/10): Despite similar appearances the all-plastic KSC35 is more fragile than the newer KSC75. The clips become loose even quicker than those of the KSC75 and the plastics aren’t molded any better despite the difference in price. As always, Koss’s excellent lifetime warranty deserves a nod here but there have been instances of the KSC35 being replaced with the ‘newer’ KSC75 model under warranty.

Comfort (7.5/10): For those used to the KSC75, the tighter-fitting clips of the KSC35 may be a bit uncomfortable at first but they get better. The headphones are still very light and stay in place more securely than the KSC75s, which makes them more suitable for use while jogging or even walking.

Isolation (2/10): Just like the KSC75 model, the KSC35s are open headphones. They don’t isolate and they leak quite a bit.

Sound (6.75/10): The drivers used by the KSC35 are said to be closely related, if not identical, to those used by the highly-acclaimed Koss PortaPro. Indeed, the comparisons between the KSC75 and PortaPro generally hold true for thee KSC35 as well – the latter clip-on is on the whole more controlled, more balanced, and more refined than its successor. Bass depth is a touch better and the bloated muddiness of the KSC75 is reduced slightly, though the low end still has a tendency to creep up. The mids are warm and balanced well with the low end though the KSC35 is definitely bottom-heavy on the whole. Clarity is excellent and detail is quite good for the price. The Sennheiser PX100-II – a long-time rival of the Koss headphones - is more forward in the midrange but the KSC35 is has no trouble portraying the energy of vocals and guitars. 

The treble is smooth and surprisingly refined. It is very slightly recessed and there is less treble sparkle than with the KSC75. Still, treble quantity is not really lacking and extension is equally respectable. The presentation is open and airy, akin to that of the PortaPros and PX100s. The semi-closed Yuin G2A would be the KSC35’s closest competitor as far as mid-range clip-ons go and really doesn’t offer a significant leap in presentation realism despite having a leaner and more accurate overall sound. The KSC35 has no trouble tracking multiple instruments and arguably sounds cleaner than the somewhat thick-sounding PX100 on the whole. It is also more three-dimensional and has better imaging than the cheaper KSC75.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $44.99; Street Price: $45) Originally priced at just $30, the KSC35 has been brought back into production at a new price point after being discontinued in 2005. I can’t say for sure that paying three times more for the KSC35 than the KSC75 is justified considering that the cheaper headphone has the potential to be more comfortable as well as more durable but those searching for the PortaPro signature in a clip-on will find an amazingly competent headphone in the KSC35.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15-25,000 Hz
Impedance: 60 Ω
Sensitivity: 101 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A




(C28) Prodipe Pro 800: Closed studio headphone from French pro audio manufacturer Prodipe

Prodipe Pro800.jpg

Build Quality (7.5/10): The Pro 800 is a fairly typical DJ-style headphone made almost entirely out of plastic. Construction quality is a notch below that of Ultrasone’s entry-level HFI-450 model but really not bad at all for a $40 headphone. The Prodipes aren’t exactly pretty and a little on the large size, mostly due to the thickness of the cups, but they can be folded flat and collapsed, which makes them easy to cram in a backpack or the included storage pouch. The coiled cable is thick, well-relieved, and terminated in a threaded 3.5mm I-plug, measuring close to 4m in length when fully extended.

Comfort (8/10): Despite appearances, the Prodipes are circumaural and arguably more comfortable than the larger Superlux HD668B. The round vinyl pads are just barely tall enough to enclose my (average-sized) ears but are deeper than and don’t get as sweaty as Superlux pads, making the Prodipes a little easier to wear for long stretches. Due to the folding mechanism, the cups of the Pro 800 are highly adjustable, which makes up for some of their extra weight.

Isolation (7.5/10): The Pro 800 is a closed headphone and isolates a good amount – on par with most of the other circumaural studio cans. Sound leakage is nearly nonexistent.

Sound (7/10): Though the Pro 800 is marketed as a studio headphone, its sound signature is a stark contrast to the neutral-and-balanced Superlux HD668B. Instead, the Prodipes take a more bass-heavy approach to audio commonly attributed to so-called ‘DJ’ monitors. The bass of the Pro 800 is deep and powerful but impact is softer and duller than with the HD668B. Sub-bass is far more present, however, providing that low-end rumble typical of competing DJ sets. In addition, the enhanced mid/upper-bass gives the entire signature a full-bodied feel. The low end always remains thick and weighty, making it sound like the Prodipes are just a touch too slow to match the resolution of the Superluxes. For those who value bass quantity the tradeoff will undoubtedly be worth it but from an accuracy standpoint, the HD668B has the upper hand.

The midrange of the Pro 800 is not at all forward and the powerful bass can make it seem even less so at times. Clarity is decent but not outstanding - consumer-oriented portables such the Koss PortaPro and Sennheiser PX100 can easily reach and even exceed the Prodipes’ level of midrange clarity. Next to the crystal-clear Superlux HD668B, the midrange of the Pro 800 sounds overly thick and slightly veiled. Listening at lower volumes makes the moderate clarity level a bit less noticeable and generally works well with the bass-heavy sound signature of the Prodipes. On the upside, the mids are smooth and fluid and detail levels are quite good. The smoothness of the Prodipes doesn’t break down in the treble, either, though there is a slight lift in emphasis towards the high end. Treble sparkle is very low in quantity – next to the Sennheiser HD25 and Superlux HD668B, the Pro 800 can sound a bit dark. Extension is good, however, so while the headphones don’t derive any airiness from the treble sparkle, they are quite difficult to fault on a technical level – not bad at all considering the ridiculously low asking price.

The presentation of the Pro 800 is reasonably well-rounded as well. The soundstage is not the largest I’ve encountered in the price range but fairly decent for a closed headphone. Next to the HD668B, it lacks openness and air and the bass has a bit of that typical ‘closed headphone’ boom. However, layering and imaging are quite decent and the overall sonic picture is coherent and reasonably convincing. Closed headphones in this price range are rarely purchased by those in search of a realistic presentation anyway, and in that context the Pro 800 does not disappoint. Worth noting is the Prodipes’ efficiency – the headphones are driven far more easily by portable devices than the Superlux HD668B and perform quite consistently with all sources.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: est. $100; Street Price: $49) Despite Prodipe’s attempts too market the Pro 800 as a studio monitor, the thick and slightly colored sound of the headphones is undoubtedly far less suited for monitoring applications than mid-range sets from big name manufacturers such as Denon, Audio-Technica, and Ultrasone. However, the Prodipes are also far cheaper, undercutting even the Numark PHX for the title of the cheapest full-size DJ-style monitor featured in this lineup. The build quality, comfort, and isolation of a full-size monitor all give the Pro 800 a leg up on its direct competition but it is the smooth and generally enjoyable sound that really allows the Pro 800 to hold its own in a segment usually dominated by small open portables. Barring the fairly large size and questionable aesthetics of the set, that makes it a good value in my book.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 45 Ω
Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 13.1ft (4m) coiled, single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

Huge thanks to Shmulkey for the Pro 800 loan and Olimoronio for discovering and promoting the headphones!




(C29) Koss UR55 Studio Pulse: Small circumaural portable from Koss

Koss UR55.jpg

Build Quality (7.5/10): With the exception of the thick metal headband, the UR55 is almost entirely plastic. The cups are large enough for the headphones to be considered circumaural, but only just. The dimensions of the bowl-shaped foam pads mirror those of the pleather pads found on the Fischer Audio FA-004, another small circumaural. The flat-folding cups tend to creak quite a bit at the hinges. On the whole, the structure is mostly solid and while the UR55 may not feel as high-grade as the higher-end DJ100, care was obviously taken with the design. The cable, especially, is impressive – thick, soft, and flexible, it is quite pleasant in day-to-day use despite being dual-sided. Strain relief is ample all around.

Comfort (7.5/10): The structure of the UR55 has little flex and the clamp of the headphones tends to be a bit strong. The foam pads, in conjunction with the flat-folding mechanism, distribute force quite well but for those with larger heads the headband itself may be a little short. Padding thickness is sufficient on both the headband and earcups.

Isolation (5.5/10): The foam pads of the UR55 let sound in and leak some sound out. The UR55 fares better than the smaller semi-open sets in its price range but really shouldn’t be used anywhere noise may be an issue

Sound (6.75/10): Koss portables have always been well-liked around head-fi – the Wisconsin-based headphone maker has been winning over the hearts and ears of budget-minded audiophiles for more than a quarter of a century with models like the PortaPro and KSC75. Introduced in 2010 as a Best Buy exclusive model, the new UR55 is a fairly basic headphone in terms of functionality. Marketed as a studio monitor, the UR55 nonetheless offers a consumer-friendly sound that stops just short of the hi-fi inclinations of the higher-end PRO DJ100. At the low end, the UR55 is quick and punchy. Bass depth is decent and a moderate mid-bass emphasis gives the UR55 a sizeable amount of impact. By no means a bass monster, the UR55 still easily beats the bass quantity of the similarly-priced Sennheiser HD428 and goes toe-to-toe with the Maxell DHP-II. The DHP-II provides slower attack/decay times and a softer, fuller note presentation while the UR55 has the upper hand when it comes to immediacy and punch. Bass detail and texture are good as well – the UR55 is not quite as resolving as the higher-end Sennheiser HD25 or Sony MDR-V6 but it competes extremely well with similarly-priced sets.

The midrange is the most attention-grabbing aspect of the UR55’s signature. Overall it is aggressive and a bit forward, not unlike the mids of some of the lower-end Koss portables. Vocals come across especially strong – probably more so than with any other portable in my possession. Midrange detail and texture are surprisingly good but the clarity trails the Sennheiser HD428 and Fischer Audio FA-004 a bit. Similarly, the tone of the headphone is quite neutral but not entirely spot-on compared to the Sennheiser and Fischer Audio sets. One issue might be the top end. While clear, detailed, and relatively well-extended, the treble is slightly peaky and can sound a bit ‘tizzy’. It definitely lags behind the FA-004 in overall smoothness. Luckily, listening fatigue is still very low. The presentation of the UR55 is a little more typical – generally well-separated and airy but not as wide as with the HD428. The forward midrange does make the UR55 more intimate-sounding than it otherwise could be but on the whole the presentation is nicely layered and pleasant. That said, those looking for a wider, more spacious soundstage will probably be better off with the higher-end DJ100 or a Sennheiser HD428.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $49.99; Street Price: $50) The Koss UR55 is a comfortable, reasonably-well built mid-level headphone from Koss. The sound is forward and detailed, offering good overall balance and surprisingly decent instrument separation. Sadly, neither the functionality nor the sound quality of the UR55 really gives it a strong upper hand next to the other <$100 circumaural portables. However, the one thing Koss always seems to get right with their headphones is pricing – even at MSRP the UR55 is a good value. Anything below that may just be worth taking a trip to Best Buy for.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 18-22,000 Hz
Impedance: 36 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

Thanks to jant71 for the UR55 loan!




(C30) Sony MDR-770LP: Unique-looking slim portable headphone from Sony utilizing 30mm drivers

Sony MDR-770LP.jpg

Build Quality (7.5/10): The MDR-770LP utilizes a simple structure composed of a single-piece headband wrapped in a rubbery material and two oval driver housings able to move vertically two or so inches. No extraneous styling cues break the form of the headphones – even the color-coded L/R markings are hidden on the inside of the headband. Inconspicuous Sony logos are placed on the glossy plastic bits at either end of the headband. The earpads and single-piece headband pad are all made out of porous foam. The cable is perhaps the best part of the construction – smooth and flexible, it is flattened in cross section above the y-split and thick and sturdy below. A meaty 3.5mm I-plug completes the picture.

Comfort (8/10): Though the 770LP is a supraaural headphone, it is not a tightly-clamping one and there is a good amount of freedom afforded to the earcups by the structure. The foam padding is soft and smooth and the headphones generally remain comfortable for quite a while. Those with larger heads or sensitivity towards supraaural fitment may not be as happy with the 770LP as I am, though.

Isolation (3.5/10): The pads of the 770LP are small and really can’t seal out a whole lot of outside noise. The headphones also leak a fair amount

Sound (4.75/10): Far less unique than its styling, the sound signature of the 770LP focuses on the lower half of the frequency spectrum and fails to impress in any major way. The bass is punchy and strong but lacks definition and detail. There is a sizeable mid-bass hump, which gives the headphones a warm overall tone and a fuller, rounder note presentation, not unlike that of the Bose Triport. If not for the forward midrange, the bass of the 770LP would likely sound more bloated than it does. As it stands, the low end at the very least appears to be kept in check by the powerful midrange. The mids are warm and very forward but again sound muddy and ill-defined. The peculiar balance results in an overall lack of depth in the presentation and the tendency towards note thickness exhibited by the Sonys limits the resolution. Neither the clarity nor the detail level of the 770LP is anything to write home about. In fact, even Sony’s own teen-oriented MDR-PQ2 performs better when it comes to crispness, clarity, and detail and provides a far more nuanced overall sound despite its recessed midrange.

The treble of the 770LP is probably the cleanest part of the spectrum, which is not saying a whole lot for this particular headphone. The top end is laid-back and devoid of sparkle. Compared to the midrange, the treble appears lacking in energy almost to the point of being lifeless. There is also some unexpected unevenness and grain to both the midrange and treble, which occasionally causes the 770LP to sound overly harsh on guitar-heavy tracks. Top-end roll-off is less noticeable than with the UrbanEars Plattan but still quite obvious next to a more balanced set such as the Sennheiser HD428. The presentation, likewise, is decent but not particularly impressive. Compared to the similarly-priced MDR-PQ2, the MDR-770LP lacks a bit of top-to-bottom and front-to-rear positioning. Width is fairly average on both – clearly no match for the semi-open Sennheiser PX90 or the crisp and airy HD428. Some of the instrumental separation, too, falls victim to the thicker note presentation and mid-forward balance of the 770LP – the headphone really seems to go to great lengths to make itself difficult to recommend for those in search of fidelity.

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $49.99; Street Price: $30) The portable headphone market is dominated by a few simple styles that get re-hashed ad nauseam and the design of the 770LP is definitely refreshing. Build quality and comfort, too, are better than I expected. Unfortunately, the fashion-forward headphone falls flat on the sound quality front, with the utter lack of sonic clarity presenting the biggest issue. The only good thing I have to say for Sony is that I appreciate the improvement in driver performance between the 770LP and the newer – and cheaper – MDR-PQ2.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 12-24,000 Hz
Impedance: 24 Ω
Sensitivity: 107 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

Thanks to jant71 for the MDR-770LP loan!

 

 


(C31) Coloud Colors: portable headphone from Urbanears’ and Marshall Headphones’ sister brand Coloud

Coloud Colors.jpg

Build Quality (6/10): Staying true to the name of the headphone, the structural elements, headband, pads, and cable of the Coloud Colors are all finished in the same color. The construction of the headphones is extremely simple – a sturdy metal skeleton, plastic cups and yokes, and a synthetic leather headband. Unlike the similar-looking Urbanears Plattan, the Colouds do not fold and the headband is unpadded. The cable, sheathed in nylon on the Plattan, is covered in plastic on the Colouds. It is still single-entry and thick enough to withstand some abuse. In contrast to the Urbanears and Marshall sets, none of the materials used for the Colouds are particularly high-grade but the simple structure of the headphones still inspires confidence in their longevity.

Comfort (5/10): While light and small, the Coloud Colors are quite rigid and don’t conform to the shape of one’s ears very well. Headband length can be adjusted and the cups tilt around the horizontal axis but not about the vertical, ignoring nuances of human anatomy, and there is almost no flex in the structure. As a result, despite the soft pads, the Colouds can get very uncomfortable after just a few hours and listeners with larger noggins will likely find the clamping force exerted by the headband too high even sooner.

Isolation (7/10): The tight clamping force and vinyl pads do have the potential for good isolation but the lack of flexibility in the fitting mechanism makes it difficult to get a solid seal. Noise leakage is respectably low.

Sound (4.25/10): The Coloud Colors mimic the higher-end Urbanears Plattan by providing powerful, enhanced bass and laid-back, relaxed treble. The bass has good depth and impact but tends to sound muddy and boomy. There is a discernable lack of control and a propensity towards smearing on busy tracks. The pricier Plattan does not smear quite this badly despite having a similar frequency balance on the whole. The midrange of the Colors is warm and forward but still manages to be veiled and muddy. Vocals come across smooth and strong despite but the mediocre clarity doesn’t do the resolution any favors. Guitars bite due to the thick sound and characteristically rounded notes and the midrange lacks detail compared to competing sets such as the Sennheiser PX90 and MEElec HT-21.

The treble transition is enviably smooth, partly because the Colors begin to roll-off at the upper midrange. The top end is recessed and the overall tone of the headphones is slightly on the dark side. Lovers of bright and sparkly treble will not be pleased and even those who prefer a more neutral tone will likely be left wanting more top end out of the Colouds. On the upside, the sound signature completely avoids listening fatigue and easily kills off harshness and sibilance.

Presentation is perhaps where the Colors are closest to the Plattan. They lack the dynamic range necessary to accurately portray distance and fall behind many similarly-priced sets in instrument separation and layering. Not only does the presentation of the Colors not compete well with open sets such as the Koss KSC75, it also trails similarly-priced competition from MEElec, Soundmagic, and others.

Value (5/10). (MSRP: $40.00, Street Price: $40) As advertised, the monochromatic Coloud Colors headphones certainly do stand out visually in a field of (mostly) black, gray, and white sets from competing brands. However, the company also makes claims to functionality and value. Sadly, the Colors feel like a budget-oriented product with most of the additional features stripped away when compared to the Plattan from their Urbanears sister brand. They do offer deep, thumping bass and good passive noise isolation but the overall sound quality and comfort are just too mediocre for the asking price.


Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided, with microphone & remote; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A



(C32) Pioneer SE-MJ71: Mid-range supraaural portable from Pioneer

Pioneer SE-MJ71.jpg

Build Quality (5/10): The polished stainless steel looks are what attracted me to the MJ71 in the first place – stock photos make the headphone look stylish, understated, and vaguely reminiscent of Audio-Technica’s Earsuit line. Unfortunately, there is very little to like about the MJ71 aside from the finish of the earcups. The headband is completely plastic and suffers from mediocre molding quality. The last time I came across a headband that looked and felt this cheap, it was attached to the $7 Coby CV163. The notched headband extension mechanism feels equally rough and the rotating joints, despite the metal-like appearance, are chromed plastic. Pioneer boasts of the MJ71’s DJ-inspired styling, which presumably refers to the flat-folding earcups and fully collapsible design, but none of the moving parts feel like they will last. The dual-sided cord is also plasticky and cheap-feeling. All I can compliment Pioneer on are the pads, which are nowhere near as sub-par as the rest of the headphone, and the clever red/black color-coded grilles, which act as left/right markings.

Comfort (7.5/10): The fit of the MJ71 is typical of a supraaural DJ-style headphone. It clamps a little harder than the MEElec HT21 and gets painful to wear a bit quicker but on the whole is quite tolerable. The earpads are soft enough and don’t heat up too quickly but the plastic headband is unpadded.

Isolation (6/10): Isolation is about average for a small closed headphone – there is a good amount of flexibility to the fit and the pads can seal reasonably well. Sound leakage is respectably low.

Sound (4.25/10): If the construction quality and choice of materials deliver a heavy blow to the Pioneer SE-MJ71, the audio quality makes sure that the headphones stay down for the count. Pioneer offers up claims of “professionally-inspired tuning” and “full, accurate performance”, which are interesting only because the SE-MJ71 offers none of those things.

The MJ71 has three major weaknesses – bass, treble, and presentation. The bass is forward, deep, and strong but tends to lack control and clarity. I’ve certainly heard worse but not from something with an $80 retail price - the Pioneers are only a little tighter at the bottom end than the fashion-oriented Coloud Colors. What little control there is drops even further once several instruments are in play due to the poor resolution and driver speed – the MJ71 just gives up and falls into a muddy abyss when the track gets busy. An additional issue is a strange echoing/resonance against the earcups heard on strong bass lines. Overall not a very realistic bass experience.

The midrange is clearer and less offensive on the whole than the low end. The bass is strong enough to make the balance seem slightly skewed away from the midrange but overall the MJ71 is a forward headphone. It manages to pull away from the veiled and muddy sound of the Coloud Colors in the midrange but sacrifices a bit of the smoothness as well. The upper midrange and treble are quite prominent and the MJ71 isn’t warm or thick-sounding. The highs are bright and slightly thin, leading to a ‘tinny’ sound. There are some narrow treble peaks that cause the MJ71 to sound overly harsh with certain tracks. It is a fatiguing, shiny, metallic sound that doesn’t sit well with me at all. I still prefer the balance of the MJ71 to something with severely rolled-off treble (e.g. the UrbanEars Plattan), but only just. Treble roll-off still occurs slightly earlier than one would expect considering how aggressive the top end is on the whole but the headphone does not sound dark, dull, or stuffy. Still, the presentation is aggressive and congested. The soundstage is smaller than with the UrbanEars and far more confined than with similarly-priced open sets such as the Sennheiser PX100-II.

Value (4.5/10). (MSRP: $79.00, Street Price: $40) I wanted to like the SE-MJ71 for its looks and portability but from the very first listen I have felt that Pioneer missed the mark by a mile with the $80 MSRP. Prices have been dropping across the board over the past couple of months but even at a third of the original price I still don’t see a competitive product here. The construction quality is underwhelming and, aside from reasonably clear mids, the sound quality is sub-par. My advice – look to Audio-Technica if you are attracted by the cosmetics of the MJ71 or to headphones priced well from the start if you’re attracted to the current low price. Sets such as the MEElec HT-21, Denon P372, Sennheiser PX90, and Koss PortaPro will walk all over the Pioneers without having to be massively discounted. Not recommended.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5-28,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

For a full review of the SE-MJ71, see here.

 

 


(C33) Sony PIIQ MDR-PQ2 Giiq: Lightweight portable headphone from Sony’s style-oriented PIIQ line

Sony MDR-PQ2 PIIQ Giiq.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): The PQ2 is part of Sony’s PIIQ series of style-focused headphones – a design clearly taken out of the Skullcandy fashion playbook. The build is mostly plastic although there is a bit of rubber covering the hinges on the cups. The headband is padded in cloth while the earpads are made of thin pleather. Strangely, the PQ2 can neither fold nor collapse – not a great design choice for portability but leaves less to go wrong. The cable is a flat and slightly softer than the cords found on Sony’s XB-series models. Below the Y-split it becomes rather thick, almost square in cross section. The cord is terminated with an impressively heavy-duty L-plug. My particular pair is also colored differently on either side – one of the cups is blue and the other is green. The left/right markings written out in cursive are a nice touch.

Comfort (8/10): Though the structure of the PQ2 does not fold or collapse, the headphones have plenty of play in the cups and actually clamp rather softly. The plastic shell also weighs next to nothing and the cushy cloth-padded headband is one of the best I’ve come across in the PQ2’s price range.

Isolation (5.5/10): The moderate clamping force of the cups leaves much to be desired with the isolation of the PQ2 despite the closed-back design.

Sound (5.75/10): The PQ2’s flashy exterior belies a surprisingly tame and well-balanced sound signature. The 30mm drivers are a major upgrade from Sony’s older 30mm transducers used by models such as the MDR-770LP and compete well with most entry-level sets. The low end is mildly rolled-off, but punchy and enjoyable. Bass detail is mediocre but the softness and bloat of the 770LP are nowhere to be found. The PQ2 is still slightly warm – warmer, for example, than the more controlled and extended Urbanears Plattan – but not muddy considering the price.

The midrange of the PQ2 is balanced well with the bass response – similar to that of the Plattan, but appearing more prominent due to the less impactful bass of the Sonys. The similarly-priced MDR-770LP is far more mid-forward but lacks the crispness and detail of the PQ2. Guitars don’t have any bite with the 770LP while the PQ2 performs adequately. Clarity is good as well - on par with the more expensive Soundmagic P30 and Marshall Major. The PQ2 does lag behind the pricier sets in note thickness and smoothness, appearing a bit grainy but not quite harsh. The metallic highs of the brighter, thinner-sounding Pioneer SE-MJ71 are far more fatiguing than the slightly grainy top end of the Sonys. The presentation of the Sonys is not very impressive – there is some width to the soundstage but not very much depth, causing the headphones to sound rather flat. The PQ2 may not be as congested as the older entry-level Sonys tend to be, but it is average at best when it comes to instrument separation and layering.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $49.99; Street Price: $29) Sony’s style-focused portable is a cheap headphone done right - simple in construction, inoffensive in sound signature, lightweight, and comfortable. The sound of the PQ2 is well-balanced, clear, and punchy, making for a well-rounded listening experience. Those looking for deep, rumbling bass and high passive noise isolation will want to steer clear but otherwise, funky as it may look, the PQ2 is a reasonably-priced alternative to disappointing performers such as the Coloud Colors and Pioneer SE-MJ71.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10-24,000 Hz
Impedance: 24 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A


 


(C34) Panasonic RP-HTF600-S: lightweight circumaural monitor from Panasonic

Panasonic RP-HTF600.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): The construction of the HTF600 is rugged in its simplicity – aside from the headband adjustment and a small amount of play in the earcups, there are no moving parts. This allows the build to be almost entirely plastic, including the inner headband, which makes the Panasonics extremely lightweight and not completely unsuitable for portable use despite their size. The outside surfaces of the earcups feature brushed metal inserts, which help the headphones feel a little less cheap, and the Quick Fit mechanism adds two pre-sets to the adjustable headband. The cable is single-sided, well-relieved, and nearly 10 feet long.

Comfort (9/10): The HTF600 is a full-size headphone with oval earcups. The structure is extremely lightweight and the earcups pivot for a compliant fit. The low clamping force makes them unsuitable for any sort of headbanging, at least in my case, but may be a lifesaver for those with larger heads. The only real issue is the pad material – the pads tend to heat up over time and can induce sweating

Isolation (5/10): The semi-open design limits isolation significantly and causes the HTF600 to leak at high volumes. Clearly the headphones weren’t design for use where background noise is significant

Sound (7.75/10): The sound of the HTF600 is rather well-balanced aside from the boosted low end. The bass is strong – depth is decent and impact is plentiful without becoming overwhelming. The Panasonics are much bassier than the Sennheiser HD428 and Beyerdynamic DT235 but don’t quite have the depth and fullness of a Cortex CHP-2500 (Prodipe Pro 800). Notes have good weight and thickness and the boost in the bass results in a pleasantly warm tone.

The midrange of the HTF600, while not quite as forward as the low end, still sounds prominent enough to impress with its smooth, musical nature. There is mild bass bleed and the mids are somewhat colored but provide good detail – better, for example, than with the bassier, darker-sounding Monoprice 8323. Clarity is decent but falls well short of higher-end sets – the V-Moda M-80, for example. It doesn’t hurt that the Panasonics have airy, well-balanced treble but the natural clarity is only on par with the Sennheiser HD428, which is still less warm and generally more transparent than the Panasonics.

Treble is present but not too high on sparkle. It seems smooth on the whole but lacks refinement and – surprisingly - can sound a touch grainy at times. There is a bit of harshness compared to the Cortex CHP-2500, making the HTF600 more fatiguing over very long listening sessions than both the CHP-2500 and the treble-recessed Monoprice 8323. It also sounds a little less clean than the HD428. On the upside, the HTF600 does have better top end extension than the similarly-priced competition and sounds plenty airy as a result.

The presentation is generally good – there is plenty of width to the soundstage as well as good depth and height, providing a well-rounded image. Unlike the many other entry-level headphones, the HTF600 never sounds small or closed-in and has plenty of air without sacrificing its impactful low end. Layering is vastly superior to the Monoprice 8323 and makes the Sennheiser HD428 sound flat and distant. Dynamics are good as well and the HTF600 sounds great with everything from classic rock to modern, dynamically-compressed music.

Value (9.5/10). (MSRP: $59.99; Street Price: $30) Whether at the street price or at full retail, the Panasonic RP-HTF600 is an excellent value. The sound quality is superior to anything I’ve heard in the price range, with plentiful bass impact taking almost nothing away from the clean, detailed sound and spacious presentation. Technically a full-size headphone, it is still sleek, lightweight, and restrained-looking enough to be used outside, appearing no more out of place than a Sony MDR-ZX700 or Superlux HD668B. Isolation is rather low and the headphones do leak sound but those looking for a comfortable, circumaural headphone will find that what the RP-HTF600 offers may just be the most enjoyable listening experience out there for the money.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10-30,000 Hz
Impedance: 56 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 9.8ft (3m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

(C35) Astrotec AS-100HD: Semi-open portable headphone from Astrotec
 

1000

 

Build Quality (7/10): The AS-100HD is a compact supraaural headphone. Cosmetically, it bears a very strong resemblance to the MEElectronics HT-21 I’ve reviewed previously, down to the single-sided cable attachment and angled plug. The cord is of good thickness and a metal band runs through the headband. The AS-100HD is a semi-open variant and uses metal mesh earcups, which give it a more solid feel compared to the all-plastic HT-21. The construction is not heavy-duty by any means but for a small and reasonably-priced supraaural portable it feels like it should last.

Comfort (8.5/10): The AS-100HD utilizes pleather-padded cups and headband. The headphones are very lightweight but there is more clamp force compared to the MEElec HT-21, which allows the Astrotec set to fit more securely but gives up a small amount of long-term comfort.

Isolation (5/10): Surprisingly, the semi-open AS-100HD doesn’t really isolate any worse than the closed-back but looser-fitting MEElec HT-21.

Sound (6.25/10): The AS-100HD pursues an enhanced-bass sound signature, delivering surprising depth and power for a semi-open headphone. The low is slightly boomy and lacks the detail and refinement higher-end sets are typically capable of providing. Still, it performs well enough for the asking price and the bass boost gives the AS-100HD a pleasantly warm sound. The overall sound signature is centered on the bass and lower midrange and begins to roll off at the upper mids. Bass bleed is kept to a minimum by the generally forward midrange, which is smooth and boasts very decent detailing.

The treble presentation is also smooth but the top end is recessed. In some ways the AS-100HD is the polar opposite of the similarly-priced MEElec HT-21, which boasts leaner bass and forward, somewhat shouty upper mids. The closed-back AS-200HD also offers better treble presence and a more balanced overall sound signature. The presentation of the AS-100HD is good—broader and more spacious than that of its closed-back counterpart. The mids and bass tend to sound rather forward, however, which doesn’t lend a whole lot of depth to the sound.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $36.79; Street Price: $33) The AS-100HD is a consumer-friendly portable headphone that manages to provide a warm sound signature with surprisingly powerful bass. The real strength, however, is midrange, which is clean and informative. For such a small headphone the AS-100HD also feels sturdy and provides some isolation despite the semi-open design. For years now the trend has been towards closed portable headphones, but, when taken alongside its closed-back counterpart, the AS-100HD shows that there is still merit in the sound of open-back designs.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 8-21,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible



(C36) Astrotec AS-200HD: Closed-back portable headphone from Astrotec
 

1000

 

Build Quality (7/10): Like the AS-100HD, the AS-200 model is a compact supraaural headphone similar in many ways to the MEElectronics HT-21. The single-sided cord is of good thickness and a metal band runs through the headband. The AS-200HD is the closed variant and uses metal plates on the outside of the earcups, which give it a more solid feel compared to the all-plastic HT-21. The construction is not heavy-duty by any means but for a small, reasonably-priced supraaural, it feels like it will last.

Comfort (8.5/10): The AS-200HD utilizes pleather-padded cups and headband. The headphones are very lightweight but there is more clamp force compared to the MEElec HT-21, which allows the Astrotec set to fit more securely but gives up a small amount of long-term comfort.

Isolation (6.5/10): With a closed-back design and soft padding, the AS-200HD isolates quite well for a small on-ear headphone.

Sound (6/10): The AS-200HD is the closed-back sibling of the similarly-priced AS-100HD model. The AS-200HD is even bassier than its semi-open counterpart, offering up lots of impact and a very full-bodied sound for such a small headphone. In fact, it is probably the bassiest of the entry-level on-ears. Unfortunately this also means that the low end is boomy and not very refined, even next to the AS-100HD. The midrange sounds more subdued by the bass on the AS-200 model as well, appearing veiled. The treble, however, has slightly more presence and is better-balanced with the midrange compared to the AS-100. However, it still doesn’t keep up with the prominent bass, resulting in a slightly dull sound.

Like the AS-100HD, the AS-200HD is generally a warm and smooth-sounding headphone. Despite the bass bloat and midrange veil it can be enjoyable – the presentation, while not as expansive as that of the AS-100HD, has a bit more depth to it and the treble is more satisfying. There is some congestion resulting from the boomy bass but it’s hardly a deal-breaker in an entry-level portable headphone. Also, while the AS-200HD doesn’t have the clarity of the MEElec HT-21 and Koss KSC75, it’s also not in the least bit harsh or sibilant.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $36.79; Street Price: $33) While equally comfortable and better-isolating compared to the semi-open AS-100HD model, the Astrotec AS-200HD encounters fierce competition from other closed-back sets and simply doesn’t have much going for it aside from the startlingly strong bass. It’s difficult to call the AS-200 “Hi-Fi”, but casual listeners should enjoy them - these diminutive headphones do pack quite a punch and the smooth and warm sound is very non-fatiguing and uncritical of source and recording.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 8-21,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible
 


Edited by ljokerl - 7/4/14 at 4:26pm
post #2 of 4374
Thread Starter 

Tier B ($50-100)



(B1) Koss KSC75 (modded): Besides adding some style points to the plasticky KSCs, the common KSC75 mods do improve the already-great clip-ons, but at a price.

List of parts used: Mogami-recabled KSC75 ($30 from head-fi FS forums). 68 Ohm impedance adapter ($18, ebay). Sennheiser PX200 leatherette earpads ($6.99+shipping, Sennheiser USA). Kramer-modded grilles (10 minutes with a drill).



Build Quality (6.5/10): Naturally, build quality depends largely on how good the recabling job is. The recable on my set was quite good so the only build issue is the same as with the stock KSC75s – the **** clips still come off on occasion.

Comfort (8/10): Not much difference in comfort between these and the stock KSCs. If your ears are prone to sweating, the leatherette earpads may cause some discomfort and the earhooks may need to be reshaped to accommodate the thicker pads. I personally find the PX200 pads a bit more pleasant than the original foam ones. Like the stock KSCs, these can be worn comfortably for several hours, even while exercising. It should be noted, though, that my new cable is prone to microphonics. This is easily taken care of with a shirt clip to fix the cord in place.

Isolation (2.5/10): Though the leatherette pads may help sound leakage around the ear these are still open headphones so the difference is minute. They do seem to isolate just a tad better because the earcups seal around the ear but wearing them on the subway is still not recommended.

Sound (6.75/10): The sound changes quite noticeably with modding. Most of the difference comes from the Kramer mod alone. The sound varies widely with the way the holes are drilled. The more grille is missing from closer to the center, the more treble you get. Similarly, the outer edges of the grille are responsible for masking bass, so removing them adds bass quantity. Compared side-by-side to the stock 75’s, my modded ones have better mids and highs. They are even more forward and aggressive than the stock phones. The bass becomes less muddy (but also a bit less impactful) with the addition of the 68 ohm adapter. Another big addition is to the incredible airiness of the Koss phones with the Kramer mod and the PX200 pads. The stock KSC75s sound anything but boxed in but the modded set sounds like a small concert hall. The sound signature may not be perfect, but it’s extremely enjoyable, especially for those who already like stock KSC75s.

Value (7/10): Even though I prefer the sound of these to my stock KSC75s, I cannot say that for the average listener the price tag and time investment would be worth it. I estimate that an enterprising head-fier not adverse to DIY could end up with a pair like mine for ~$55. Mine ended up costing a bit more ($62 to be exact). Still, they are definitely a fun project for anyone with a desire to get into DIY or play around with different sounds and configurations.



(B2) AKG K81DJ (a.k.a. K518DJ / K518LE): The K81DJs were my first step into higher-priced portables and remain a personal favorite through many upgrades and inventory changes.



Build Quality (8.5/10): The construction of the K81DJ feels very robust and utilizes AKG’s patented 3D-Axis folding mechanism to make a truly versatile portable. The plastic headband houses a thick metal strip and is actually quite pliable. The joints of the 3D-Axis system are smooth and precise and the range of motion of these phones is very impressive. There is at least a half dozen different ways to fold them into the provided pleather bag. The cups are made of a hard plastic and the pads - of thick pleather. The cabling is thick and slightly rubberized. The plug is very meaty and the molded strain relief is massive. It is also threaded and a screw-on ¼” adapter is included. The biggest gripe I have with these is the length of the cord, which is quite excessive for a portable headphone at 8.2ft (2.5m).

Comfort (6/10): With a bit of adjustment when donned the K81s can be comfortable for several hours. The headband can be stretched overnight over a stack of books for a looser fit, which reduces the pressure exerted by the cups. The clamping force of a stock set can indeed be excessive for long listening sessions but there is an upside – the fit is very, very secure. I find them comfortable for a while but the pressure does get tiring after some time. Also, the headband isn’t as long as I expected – it requires to be extended completely to fit around my noggin while all of my other portable require around 50% extension – and doesn’t have any padding. Those with large heads may want to skip this set as there may just not be enough length in the headband.

Isolation (9/10): The wide range of motion of the cups, combined with the thickness of the pads, makes these one of the best-isolating portables I’ve ever tried. Leakage is nonexistent and the isolation they provide is actually on par with some of the lesser-isolating IEMs, which is saying a lot.

Sound (7/10): The sound signature of the K81dj is definitely on the warm/dark side of things. The treble is rolled off slightly but it sounds very natural, especially with stringed instruments. The mids are rich and full, a tiny bit recessed compared to the bass, just like the treble, but still very natural-sounding. The low end is very powerful and lacking in control somewhat. There’s a certain softness to the bass impact that gives these a ‘weighty’ low end. Not ideal for tracks with dense, fast, rapidly changing basslines but very enjoyable in tracks with discrete beats. The bass can be eq’d down to balance out the sound but even as is the big bass can be lots of fun. The foam pads over the grilles can be removed to balance out the amount of treble, mids, and bass slightly, adding to the former two and subtracting from the latter. I still wouldn’t pick these for any critical listening but they are very enjoyable headphones all in all.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $99.99, Street Price: $79) At the current street price the AKG K81Dj provide an incredible combination of portability, durability, and isolation. They perform respectably in the sq area as well, providing a rich midrange, very strong bass, and accurate treble. I never found them tiring even with the foam inserts removed and I can’t think of any set that I’d enjoy as much out-and-about without worrying about bothering those around me or everyday wear-and-tear. They can be comfortable for quite some time, though probably not for everyone. A plethora of well-documented mods exist to raise both the sq and comfort of the K81, giving them growth potential rivaled only by the KSC75s. A great set of phones that works extremely well at its price point (and makes me want to try the higher-end K181DJ).

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:16-24,000 Hz
Impedance:32 Ω
Sensitivity:115 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:8.2ft (2.5m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding, collapsible



(B3) Creative Aurvana Live!: A true circumaural headphone, the portability of the CAL! may be questionable but the sound produced by the OEM Foster drivers shared with the renowned Denon AH-D1001k is not.



Build Quality (7/10): The Creative Aurvana Live! is a well-built headphone but doesn’t exude the same air of solidity as the K81dj and HA-M750. The plastics feel sturdy and well-made. The glossy black cups and chrome trim are fingerprint magnets but the grime isn’t too visible on them (unlike, for example, the ATH-ES7). The stainless steel headband is padded and the cabling is nice and thick, rubberized to prevent tangling and short enough for portable use. An extension cable is included. On the downside, the CAL! are neither collapsible nor flat-folding, so calling them portables is contingent entirely on their having a shorter cable and being easily driven.

Comfort (9.5/10): The cups of the Creative Aurvana Live! were designed to be circumaural, and they are - for all but those with the largest ears. The cups are deep, extremely comfortable, and have a wide range of motion. The phones themselves are very light, largely due to the plastic construction, and there is almost no clamping force exerted by the headband. The pleather on the cups and headband feels quite soft but can get warm after a while, though I can stay cool longer in these than the JVC HA-M750.

Isolation (5.5/10): Though leakage is expectedly low, the isolation of CAL! is also quite low for a closed can. While better than almost all of the on-ear ultraportables, it just doesn’t compare some of the larger closed cans. I found myself cranking the volume up almost immediately when going outside.

Sound (8.5/10): As mentioned before, the CAL! shares OEM drivers (as well as pads and parts of the inner structure) with the renowned Denon AH-D1001k. My expectations were pretty high for these, so I was fairly surprised when I found the general sound signature to be similar to that of the significantly-cheaper JVC HA-M750. Over time, however, they grew on me and I learned to differentiate them from the JVCs in subtle but important ways. Like the JVCs, the CAL!s are bass-heavy headphones with a very rich-sounding midrange and a warm tonality. However, the Creatives boast better clarity in the (far less forward) midrange and a more dimensional sound - the soundstage has some depth in addition to the width. They are more laid back and balanced and at the same time a little faster when the music calls for it. The bass is textured, fairly well-controlled, and surprisingly deep (capable of dropping below 30Hz). The low-end response can be excessive at times - these are most definitely not monitoring headphones – but it’s hard to beat them for an enjoyable and relaxed listening experience with plenty of subwoofer bass.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $99.99, Street Price: $99). I like these, I really do. They are extremely comfortable, reasonably portable, and they sound oh-so-good. Granted, the sound isn’t quite as neutral as some may prefer and the isolation could be better. But they are just so very fun to listen to. In a series of A:B comparisons they make my JVC HA-M750 sound muddy, aggressive, and flat and my K81Dj – hollow and resonant. The CAL! is definitely one headphone I could use both on the go and at home, but only if isolation was inconsequential and absolute portability was not a concern.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:10-30,000 Hz
Impedance:32 Ω
Sensitivity:103 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:3.94ft (1.2m) + 5ft (1.5m) extension; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:N/A



(B4) Ultrasone Zino: Ultrasone’s mid-range ultraportable easily racks up the style points but falls short of excellence in other areas



Build Quality (6.5/10): The priciest of the “ultraportable” headphone crop, the Ultrasone Zinos fold to make a compact package not much larger than the Sennheiser PX100s. The construction is simple and elegant, made out of quality plastic and with only one hinge per side. Cabling is rubberized and relatively thick and the silky-smooth synthetic fabric-covered pads are very pleasing to the touch. Bonus points for the handy hard carrying case Ultrasone includes. What worries me is the hard strain relief on the 3.5mm plug as well as the generally delicate structure for the $130 MSRP.

Comfort (7.5/10): The Zinos are very light and barely clamp at all and as a result are extremely comfortable. However, their strong suit becomes their downfall when any physical activity is performed. Combined with the low clamping force there just isn’t enough grip from the smooth fabric-covered pads or plastic headband for them to stay on my head. This may not be an issue for those with larger heads, but for me having to think about my portable headphones falling off when hopping onto a curb or bending down to pick something up is an annoyance.

Isolation (4/10): The Zinos are advertised as “semi-closed”, but the large downward-facing vents and flat foam pads really don’t obstruct leakage much. Their relatively large size on the ear is all they have to offer in terms of isolation.

Sound (6/10): I was really hoping that the Zinos would save themselves from mediocrity and justify the price tag with sound quality. I think that the loose fit may affect my impressions of them a bit as the bass really isn’t all that deep unless I clamp the cups to my ears, hard. The sound signature is biased towards the high and low end but not so much as to make them sound unbalanced. The bass is capable of dropping below 30Hz when the drivers are prodded and the bass emphasis works well outside where bass notes tend to get drowned out by noise. Clarity is quite good all-around and high-end extension is impressive. The treble even has a bit of sparkle but may be too bright for some. The soundstage is wide and instruments are well-positioned, likely due in part to the S-Logic system, but can make the slightly thin midrange sound downright diffuse at times. The biggest problem I have with the Zinos, though, is the metallic sound of the mids and treble, especially with hard rock and metal. Indeed, I have noticed that one’s enjoyment of the Zinos is very dependent on music choice. They work far better with pop, trance, and electronica than with more instrumental genres such as metal and classical. On the upside, the Zinos are very iPod-friendly – they are quite forgiving of poor-quality sources and recordings.

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $129.99, Street Price: $65) While the Ultrasone Zinos are certainly attractive to behold, they fall slightly short of expectations set by the $100 price tag all-around. I do like the wide, airy sound produced by the Zinos but the metallic overtones exhaust me after extended exposure. The Zino is definitely a very competent portable, offering a small, lightweight form factor and competitive sound quality. But in the world of portable headphones, ‘competent’ is no longer good enough when the bar is set by products that are, at least in some ways, downright superb.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:15-25,000 Hz
Impedance:35 Ω
Sensitivity:101 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Collapsible



(B5) Sennheiser PX200-II: The second incarnation of Sennheiser’s closed ultraportable, the PX200-II excels where its predecessor failed



Build Quality (7.5/10): It should come as no surprise that the build of the PX200 II is quite similar to that of my old PX100s. The plastics are thicker all around and the metal headband has been widened by about 1/16” but the overall design and feel of the structure are very reminiscent of the previous PX headphones. The pleather pads seem identical to the old PX200 pads and are approximately the same size as the pads on my other small portables. The 4-foot single-sided cable features a volume control with a belt clip about halfway down. Strain reliefs seem excessively hard and worry me a bit, especially considering that the volume control/belt clip on the cord may lead to an increased chance of snags. A soft carrying pouch is included with the PX200 II in place of the hard plastic case included with the PX100.

Comfort (7.5/10): As with the PX100, the swiveling earcups provide a compliant fit. The padding on the headband looks miniscule but gets the job done without making your head sweat. However, the pleather earpads heat up more than the foam pads use by the PX100 and the whole assembly is heavier and clamps quite a bit harder making the PX200-II substantially less comfortable for prolonged use.

Isolation (6.5/10): The swiveling earcups provide a good fit and the pleather pads can create a seal despite the diminutive cup size. As a result, the isolation they provide when positioned properly over the ear is surprisingly good, beating all of the similarly-sized supraaurals and even the circumaural CAL!.

Sound: (7/10): Despite being a closed headphone, the PX200-II does not sound closed-in but instead rather spacious, not unlike the Panasonic Slimz. Though the soundstage isn’t any wider than that of the PX100s, the overall presentation is less intimate and better spaced. The sound is cooler and brighter than the PX100 – far closer to being tonally neutral. At the low end of the frequency spectrum the PX200-II provides a tight punch that makes the PX100 sound very muddy in comparison. The mids and treble not as strikingly smooth as the PX100 due to the PX200-II being far less warm, but clarity is greatly improved. The high end is fairly extended but doesn’t boast much sparkle (may be a good thing for some). Instrumental separation is good, helped significantly by the clarity and the more evenly distributed soundstaging. The resolution and fine detailing are not quite on par with some of the pricier phones here but for such a small and convenient portable it’s all really quite impressive. On a final note, I found that the PX200-II benefits less from dedicated amplification than did the old PX100, likely because there’s not as much room for improvement at the low end.

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $99.95, Street Price: $90) Unlike the original PX200, which had little going for it besides being small and closed, the Mk II is a surprisingly competent all-rounder. Well-built, reasonably comfortable, and offering a good amount of isolation, the PX200-II is the headphone that the old PX200 should have been and finally offers serious competition for the likes of the AKG K81DJ. Die-hard bassheads will probably be happier with the old PX100 but for the rest of us the far more balanced and neutral PX200-II offers more faithful sound reproduction. The sacrifice in comfort for better passive noise reduction is rather unfortunate but potentially of more value to those actually using the headphones on the move. The PX200-II therefore has all the hallmarks of a critical and commercial success – usability, excellent sonic characteristics, and a respected name to back it all up - and will likely become more popular than the famed PX100 in the near future.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:10-21,000 Hz
Impedance:32 Ω
Sensitivity:115 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding, collapsible



(B6) Audio-Technica ATH-ES7: Wearing the ATH-ES7 in public will undoubtedly turn heads, but even without the style the ES7s have enough merit to draw attention



Build Quality (7.5/10): The most obvious feature of the ES7’s exterior is the mirror-finish cups, which look absolutely stunning when they are clean. This latter nuance may not seem like a big deal but the polish attracts scratches and fingerprints like an industrial-strength magnet. A microfiber cloth and soft carrying pouch are included to help keep the headphones clean. The structure itself is quite robust, with a rubber-covered metal-wire headband and smoothly-rotating cups. Cabling is fairly average, similar in feel to what is found on the smaller and cheaper Sennheiser portables.

Comfort (5.5/10): The rubber-covered headband doesn’t provide much padding and the odd shape causes the cups to exert quite a lot of pressure on the wearer’s ears. Though the ES7 stay in place very well as a result, discomfort is noticeable after just minutes on a stock set. The clamping force of the ES7 can be decreased by stretching the headband or bending it outward at the ‘shoulders’. Though I do like the rough leather-like pads, Sennheiser HD25 velour pads fit on the ES7 for a comfort boost. Even with the possible modifications comfort is mediocre at best – great for (very) short walks outside; not so good for a 3-hour listening session.

Isolation: (6/10): For a closed supraaural of its size the isolation of the ES7 is below average - I often felt compelled to crank up the volume when wearing them outside. The pronounced bass does help make this more tolerable, as bass is usually the first characteristic lost due to lack of isolation. Leakage is expectedly minimal.

Sound (7/10): The ATH-ES7 provide a distinctly ‘fun’ sound signature that betrays Audio-Technica’s poising them for mainstream success. They’re heavy hitters in the bass department with a smooth and full-bodied low end. Extension is adequate and these can produce a good amount of bass rumble when prodded. The speed isn’t quite up to par with the HA-M750 and Q40s but the softer impact may even be preferable for some. They are certainly less tiring to my bass-sensitive ears. The midrange is slightly recessed but clarity is quite good and vocals sound more or less natural. There seems to be a small hump in the lower midrange response, which gives the sound some coloration. The treble is on the bright side but not fatiguing enough to be a problem. It’s quite upfront and very crisp and clear. They do a good job relating a track’s dimensionality but don’t quite manage an open and spacious sound -soundstaging is very close and intimate. Despite this I still find them perfectly enjoyable headphones when listening on the go.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $169.95, Street Price: $99) Among all of the reasonably priced portable headphones the ATH-ES7 is a unique offering in that it manages to combine style and substance without compromising much of either. The mirror-finish cups are stunning to behold and the sound is very fun and involving – bright-n’-shiny treble, deep, impactful bass, and a clear and articulate midrange. Comfort and isolation are unfortunately not quite on par with much of the competition and those in search of a more neutral sound may want to stay away. If, however, looks are given any weight at all in a purchasing decision and absolute fidelity is not the goal the ATH-ES7 are worth a second look.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:5-30,000 Hz
Impedance:32 Ω
Sensitivity:100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding



(B7) Grado SR60i: Nearly universally praised in the head-fi community, the SR60i is Grado Labs’ entry-level supraaural headphone and is quite often referred to as the ‘gateway drug’ to the world of audiophilia.



Build Quality (8/10): Perhaps in line with their retro looks, the strength of Grados lies in their simplicity. There are really only three parts to the construction – the cups with the adjustment bars sticking out of the top, the headband, and the two plastic blocks that unify the structure. The headband a simple piece of steel sheathed in unpadded leather. The plastic cups are sturdy but do show some molding artifacts, just like the lower-end iGrados. The cable, however, is completely antithetical to the wimpy plastic string used on the baby Grados – thick, tough, and with a meaty 3.5mm plug, this cord is built to last. Overall the construction is not high-rent in any sense but carries with it an air of time-tested quality and brute strength. Not to mention that many physical problems with Grados can be mended with a hammer and some glue.

Comfort (8.5/10): Wearing Grados does take some getting used to – the cans rest on one’s ears and the slight pressure exerted by the pads can be bothersome after some time. Luckily, I’ve had plenty of practice. For me the bowl pads found on the higher-end models are far less comfortable than the amply-named ‘comfies’ that come stock on the SR60i and SR80i. The plastic SR60i is also much lighter than my last two Grados, the SR325i and MS2i, so after a few weeks of break-in they become as comfortable as large supraaurals can be. If the pads feel ‘itchy’ at first, I recommend giving them a bath in a low-concentration shampoo solution, followed by a good rinse. Of note again is the thick, 7.5ft cord, which is less than ideal for portable use (but at least the SR60i is terminated with an ipod-friendly 3.5mm jack, unlike higher-end Grado models).

Isolation: (2/10): Like all Grado headphones, the SR60i is a fully open design, which means they can be heard from the next room at reasonable volumes. Not recommended for busses, libraries, shops, or anywhere others may be bothered by music.

Sound (7.5/10): From the very first listen it is obvious that the SR60i, like all Grados, is a purpose-built listening device. Build quality, isolation, comfort, and all other considerations simply fade away when the music starts playing. There is just nothing out there for the money that can compare to a Grado for that front-and-center-at-the-Rock-show feeling. The overall sound is forward and edgy, with strong mids and pronounced treble. They are certainly on the bright side of neutral, though nowhere near as bright as the higher-end SR325i model. The bass is very tight but does not extend particularly deep and lacks the visceral impact of some of the closed cans in this lineup. In fact, the SR60i makes extremely clear the distinction between bass that is ‘punchy’ and bass that is ‘boomy’, having almost no ‘boom’ at all. The clarity is top-notch across the range and while the soundstage is below average in size, the instruments are well-separated and nicely positioned and detail is easy to pick out. The fast, fun, and forward sound of the SR60i works especially well with more energetic genres such as Rock and Pop but all music lovers will be impressed with the clarity and coherence of the sound.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $79; Street Price: $79) Though I’ve never personally considered Grados to be portable cans, the sound produced by the SR60i for a mere $80 is hard to argue against. They are completely open, not very compact, and the cord is far too long and thick to be convenient on the go. But they are also reasonably rugged, quite comfortable, and not quite as shocking to behold outside as, say, an AKG K701 or ATH-A700. The best thing about the Grados is that they don’t try to be a jack of all trades. They are absolutely stunning for what they are – clear, detailed, bright, and aggressive Rock cans. As far as I am concerned the SR60i really is one of the best all-around values in personal audio. Whether it is truly a portable headphone is a function of personal preference.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:20-20,000 Hz
Impedance:32 Ω
Sensitivity:98 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:7.5ft (2.3m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding



(B8) Audio-Technica ATH-M30: The ATH-M30 are rarely mentioned on head-fi, at least in comparison to the big-brother ATH-M50, but the low price and comfortable form-factor make them quite competitive as budget portables.



Build Quality (8/10): Despite the low selling price, the M30 are built like proper studio monitors with a steel headband, sturdy plastic forks, and generous padding. The cable is also fit for a set of studio monitors - the thick 11ft-long single-sided cord terminates in a threaded 3.5mm plug with a steel strain relief. However, the cups are quite flat and the headphones look unassuming, attracting no more attention when worn outside than the JVC M750 or other true portables. Though neither collapsible nor flat-folding, the ATH-M30 are sturdy enough to toss in a bag and forget about.

Comfort (8/10): While the M30 is a circumaural headphone, the cups are shallow, causing them to bottom out on my ears. Luckily, the padding is very soft all-around and clamping force is low, causing them to be very comfortable for prolonged listening sessions.

Isolation (6.5/10): The ATH-M30 are closed-back circumaurals. They don’t seal particularly well since the cups bottom out on my ears and clamping force is very low but isolation is still more than adequate for outside use.

Sound (6.5/10): The sound of the ATH-M30 is balanced and unaggressive, a very different signature from the Panasonic RP-HTX7 I’ve been using recently. The M30 has a bit of upper-bass emphasis but the bass is not overpowered in the conventional sense. Though the M30s are capable of delivering plenty of impact when prodded, the bass is usually heard more than it is felt. The punch of the bass is soft and controlled, often without a definite moment of impact. The mids are laid back, slightly warm, and very smooth, especially towards the top. Detail is good but the M30 won’t keep up with the Philips SHP5400 or Yuin G2A, mostly because the laid-back signature makes it harder to pick out fine nuances. The treble rolls of at the very top and holds no nasty surprises. In fact, the whole signature is quite neutral and balanced, as good as any closed headphone I’ve heard in the price range. The soundstage is quite wide but lacks depth, resulting in a somewhat distant sound most of the time. Not a bad thing as it makes them sound less closed than, for example, the RP-HTX7 or HA-S700. Compared to the majority of headphones in this thread the M30s are also quite inefficient, taking about 4/5 of maximum volume from my Sansa Fuze, but at least they do a great job of stifling hiss, even with my home amp.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $119; Street Price: $51) I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed using the M30 outside. Though not designed to be portable, they are no less suited than the Denon AH-D1001k or JVC HA-M750 as long as the extra cord length is tied up. The build quality and comfort make them a great all-rounder and I have no problems using them at home, either. At the current ~$50 price the M30s come highly recommended as a balanced and neutral all-rounder for those who don’t require an in-your-face presentation to enjoy music.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:20-20,000 Hz
Impedance:65 Ω
Sensitivity:100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:11ft (3.3m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:N/A



(B9) Philips SHP5400 / SHP5401: I've owned the SHP5400 for quite a long time and they've been a great companion for use while moving about. Though Philips has ceased selling the SHP5400 in the US, I felt that they deserved a review still, if only to show what the manufacturer is capable of.

 

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Build Quality (6.5/10): The SHP5400 are strange beasts. The construction is extremely simple and yet unique in its own way. The single-piece plastic headband threads through the cups, which slide up and down quite freely. As a result of the loose attachment of the cups, the whole structure is a bit wobbly. The pads and headband are made of foam and covered with a smooth material not unlike that used on the Ultrasone Zinos. The single-sided cable is threaded through the headband internally and has a length of six feet – quite excessive for portable use. The cable is soft and flexible, however, so I had no problem tying up a loop and using the headphones on the go, a task made much more difficult by thick cables such as those found on Grados and the ATH-M30.  

Comfort (7.5/10): The pads and headband of the SHP5400 are quite soft and don't heat up nearly as much as pleather padding does. Clamping force is rather high, however, resulting in comfort that doesn't last as long as with some looser-fitting headphones. Since the headband narrows towards the bottom, I imagine that the clamping force would be greater for those with larger heads.

Isolation (4/10): The SHP5400 are semi-open headphones and feature large vents on the rear of the cups. They are also most definitely supraaural, resulting in mild leakage and not much isolation from external noise.

Sound (7/10): The SHP5400 are quite different from most other headphones I've heard in the $50 range. Their areas of expertise, so to speak, are speed and clarity. The bass is very well-controlled and extremely tight. Extension is mediocre but the speed is tremendous. The bottom end is very transparent and lacks slightly in texture, giving them a ghost-like sound that can be very interesting with the right tracks. Expectedly there is no midrange bleed. The mids are articulated and clear, though a bit of extra volume is recommended to really bring out the detail. The soundstage is wide and the mids can sound a bit distant as a result but separation and positioning are solid. Unlike the Panasonic RP-HTX7 I've been using recently, the upper midrange and lower treble of the SHP5400 are accented without any harshness or sibilance. The upper end is extended and very crisp. The signature leans towards brightness and they can sound a little cold. I wouldn't, however, call them neutral or analytical. The sound is shiny and shimmering with energy and excitement despite them not being as forward and aggressive as, say, the Grado SR60i. The SHP5400 are also surprisingly inefficient. At my maximimum listening volume with most portable headphones (around 50% on the Sansa Fuze), the SHP5400 are just becoming audible. Combine that with the fact that the midrange is really brought into perspective only at higher volumes and a powerful player or portable amp is recommended to bring out the full potential of these cans.

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $99.99, Street Price: $55) Despite being discontinued in the US, I've seen NOS sets of these cans pop up on eBay and various internet outlets on occasion. For the price, they are definitely worth picking up for anyone who enjoys bright, clear, and fast sound. Like the majority of mid-range Philips cans I've owned, the bang/buck ratio is quite high on the SHP5400 and I really hope Philips has a replacement in store for the US market at some point in the future.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:7 - 22,000 Hz
Impedance:40 Ω
Sensitivity:99 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:6.6ft (2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:N/A

 

 

 

(B10) Beyerdynamic DT235: Beyerdynamic’s follow-up to the highly successful DT231 has gotten very little attention on head-fi. The somber looks of the headphone may partially be to blame but after spending a few weeks comparing the DT235 to some far more popular options I think these lightweight wonders deserve far more praise than they get.


Beyerdynamic DT235.jpg

Build Quality (8/10): The DT235 is not a pretty headphone, that much is certain. The single-piece headband and cups are made of a rough-feeling plastic, with a thin piece of rubber acting as an elastic second headband for comfort. A white Beyerdynamic logo on the headband and model markings on the cups complete the function-over-form appearance. There are no moving parts to the structure and the 8-foot single-sided cable is thick and flexible, with functional strain reliefs on either end. There really are no weak points to the construction – the DT235 may not be particularly high-rent but there is very little to go wrong with them.


Comfort (8/10): The egg-shaped cups of the DT235 are a bit too small to be circumaural. Still, the soft velour pads and low clamping force yield a very comfortable fit. The self-adjusting elastic headband allows them stay on securely despite the low clamp. The elastic headband and simple overall structure also make the DT235 very easy to wear around the neck, which I tend to do quite a bit for convenience. The only long-term issue with the comfort is the pads heating up over time. I suspect that like Beyer’s renowned DT770/880 pads, the DT235 are actually pleather-backed, which causes them to get hotter than ‘true’ velour pads such as those on my HD25-1.

 

Isolation (6/10): The semi-supraaural nature of the DT235 and low clamping force lead to fairly average isolation for a closed headphone of this size. Like the ATH-M30, the DT235 is adequate for use outside but probably not too useful on a plane.

 

Sound (7/10): While the styling of the DT235 is easily forgettable, the sound leaves a different impression. On the whole, the DT235s emphasize balance and detail. Compared to the far pricier HD25-1, the bass of the Beyers is neither as hard-hitting nor as extended. The low end is, however, quick, controlled, and still quite impactful. There is a very pleasant fullness to the bass of the DT235s, not unlike that present in the DT770/250. Generally, the low end stays back and the midrange is placed a step forward. On bass-heavy tracks, however, the DT235s really step up and display gobs of low-end muscle - it’s an addictive sort of bass that gets layered under the music but manages to remain integral to the listening experience. There isn’t any significant midrange bleed and mids are smooth and natural. Compared to the lush low end, the midrange can sound just a bit thin, but this is hardly noticeable. Though not quite up there with the best in the category, the DT235 is clear and detailed. Partly as a result of a larger soundstage, the midrange of the DT235 is not nearly as in-your-face as that of the Senns but it’s still very enjoyable and the softer bass presentation helps keep the detail discernible. The Beyers maintain smoothness up into the treble - no harshness or sibilance is present. The treble is a bit bright but is generally very clean and unfatiguing. Top-end extension is very good for a $50 can – the Beyers do roll off earlier than the HD25, but not by much. The overall signature leans slightly towards coolness but stops far short of being called cold as such. The presentation is rather airy for a closed headphone, with a medium-sized stage and solid positioning. As a final note, I will say that the DT235 is not a very efficient headphone, requiring quite a few volume notches from my Sansa Fuze. Most portable players will drive them just fine but the low sensitivity is something to be aware of.


Value (9/10). (MSRP: $79, Street Price: $55) The DT235 is easily one of the better sub-$100 headphones I have heard. The combination of simple and durable construction, long-term comfort, and truly impressive sound quality make it an excellent choice for those who care little for looks and a whole lot for substance. In the land of similarly-priced portables, the balanced and neutral nature of the DT235 is a welcome relief from the bass-heavy offerings put out by Ultrasone, AKG, JVC, and other manufacturers. In the end I can only wonder why the $55 Beyer is recommended so rarely while the previous model was commonly compared – and often quite favorably - to the still-popular Grado SR60.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 18 - 22,000 Hz

Impedance: 32 Ω

Sensitivity: 95 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 8ft (2.4m); Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A



(B11) Sennheiser HD238: Top-of-the-range headphone from Sennheiser’s ultraportable line, the HD238 promises top-quality sound in a compact but open form factor.

Sennheiser HD238.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): The HD238 is made mostly of plastic but features metal hinges and fittings. The metal trim gives them a distinctive but neat look and they are wonderfully unobtrusive to wear. The pads, while foam on the inside, and lined with cloth and pleather. Unfortunately there are about as many squeaks and rattles in the structure of my HD238 after several months of use as with my 3-year-old PX100s. The single-sided cord is rubberized and doesn’t tend to tangle but is quite thin for a headphone. The 3.5mm plug is oddly shaped, quite large, and lacks any proper strain relief. If you’re the kind of person who tends to knock the plug about when it’s connected to something, the HD238 may end up being a danger to other electronics and to itself.

Comfort (9.5/10): Comfort is definitely a strength of the wonderfully small and light Sennheisers. The headphones themselves are much smaller than I envisioned – just barely large enough to cover my ears – and the pads are very soft and stay cool even after very long listening sessions. The padding on the headband is adequate and the flat-folding cups have enough rotational freedom for a compliant fit. Those with smaller noggins may have trouble keeping the HD238 on during any sudden head motion, though the problem isn’t nearly as severe as with the smooth-and-slippery Ultrasone Zinos.

Isolation (3.5/10): The HD238s are open-air headphones but have significantly larger and better-sealing pads than Sennheser’s own PX100 or the Koss PortaPros. As a result isolation is just a tad better and leakage is a smidge lower, but I still wouldn’t use the HD238 anywhere others may be annoyed by music.

Sound (6.75/10): First of all, the sound score I gave to the HD238 is based on running them through a mini3 portable amp – without it they would have scored lower as I personally prefer even the lower-end HD228 to an unamped HD238. I am not usually one to advocate for portable amplifiers but the HD238 is one headphone that is dreadfully mediocre when powered by a weaker portable player such as my Sansa Fuze or Clip.

The sound signature of the HD238 is unsurprisingly Sennheiser-esque in nature, with plenty of bass, slightly recessed mids, and extended but sparkle-free treble. The low end is reasonably extended and has a moderate mid-bass emphasis. It tends to sound slightly muffled and boomy when running unamped and distorts faintly at high volumes. Even with a proper amp, bass tightness doesn’t even begin to approach that of the impossibly controlled PX200-II. Control aside, the bass is rather pleasant in character – deep and full-bodied but with soft impact and lacking slightly in definition. Next to the woolly MDR-XB500, the HD238 is rather punchy and resolving. Next to the Alessandro MS1, the Sennheisers sound distant and muffled. Does the HD238 hit the sweet spot between the Grado and Sony sound signatures? Maybe for some, but my personal preferences lean towards the clarity of the Grado end of the spectrum.

The midrange of the HD238 is warmed up by the mid-bass and very slightly recessed in comparison to the low end, though amplification helps bring it forward a touch. Clarity is good but the warm and smooth HD238s are bested by the PX200-II, the Beyer DT235s, and any of the Grado headphones. Detailing is quite impressive and the HD238s are ultimately more textured than my initial listening indicated, which makes them less relaxing to listen to than the rather less agile-sounding PX100s. The smoothness of the midrange carries over into the treble which, while quite crisp, is never sibilant. The crispness and detail are actually quite impressive in the context of the rest of the sound sig and the treble is less recessed than the midrange. There’s not much sparkle in the treble but it is well-extended and the microdetail improves further with added power.

The HD238 also does a good job of presenting audio, boasting good soundstage width (better with an amp) and decent depth. Positioning is solid but the like Sennheiser’s own PX100s and IE8 IEMs, the presentation of the HD238 is distancing in nature – portraying intimacy is definitely not one of their strong suits. The HD238 is also not very resolving in nature, even with an amp, making it less-than-ideal for busy pieces of audio – jazz, acoustic, instrumental, and vocal tracks all work very well but the presentation breaks down somewhat when confronted with a large orchestral piece. The Sennheisers also lean towards the dark side tonally, which detracts from the realism of their sound in some instances. Overall, I found their presentation rather spacious for a portable headphone but not quite as well-separated as I would have liked.

Value (6.5/10). (MSRP: $139.95, Street Price: $70) As someone who still finds the sound signature of Sennheiser’s aging PX100 enjoyable in a relaxing sort of way after years of ownership, I had high hopes for Senn’s new ‘audiophile’-class portables. What I got was a more refined dose of the typical Sennheiser sound in what is admittedly a very handsome and convenient portable. Though the comfort of the HD238 is superb, their lack of isolation once again reminds me of why higher-end open-back portables are so rare – there are simply very few occasions in which I found myself needing a truly portable open headphone. And of course there’s the amping requirement – without a half-decent portable amp, the HD238, while still superior to the PX100, fails to justify the street price (never mind the MSRP) as far as I am concerned. The HD238 seemingly caters to those who have a portable amp handy and need a laid-back but surprisingly detailed open portable. For the majority of listeners, however, other options abound.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 16 - 23,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4.5ft (1.5m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

 

 

(B12) Sennheiser HD228: Small closed headphone slotting in just below the HD238 in Sennheiser’s portable line
 

 

 

 

Sennheiser HD228.jpg


Build Quality (6/10): While the higher-end HD238 uses sturdy-feeling matte plastics and metal hinges and fittings, the HD228 is almost entirely made of a far less impressive glossy plastic. While it still attracts very little attention when worn, the glossy HD228 looks and feels cheaper than the higher-end model. The pads are also simpler than the HD238 pads – no cloth lining is present on the HD228. Instead, the pleather is stretched right over the foam backing. The single-sided cord is identical between the two headphones - quite thin for a headphone and terminated with a nickel-plated 3.5mm plug that lacks proper relief and is several sizes too large.

 

Comfort (9.5/10): Due to the less substantial construction and materials, the HD228 is even lighter than the higher-end model. Though the two headphones are equally small, the pads are thinner, but not any less soft, on the HD228. The padding on the headband is adequate and the flat-folding cups have enough rotational freedom for a compliant fit. As with the higher-end model, the HD228 is not ideal for those with small heads or for active use – the clamping force just isn’t adequate to comply with any sudden head motion.

 

Isolation (5/10): Though advertised as closed and noise-isolating portables, the HD228s are not really tight enough in fit or large enough in size to isolate significantly. For all intents and purposes, the HD228 can be called semi-closed – the closed-back design reduces leakage substantially but does little to genuinely isolate from outside noise. For casual use the attenuation may be plentiful but those looking for heavy-duty commuter phones may do well to look elsewhere.

 

Sound (6.5/10): Unlike the shockingly inefficient HD238, the benefits of amping the lower-end HD228 are close to negligible for those with moderately powerful portable players. Though the HD228 are not particularly easy to drive, hooking them up to an amp for the most part simply raises the volume headroom. What is surprising, however, is how much more sensitive to positioning on one’s ears the HD228s are – I found the ideal position in terms of sound to be a bit farther back than what comes naturally. The HD238s, which coincidentally also have bigger meshes in the pads, are far less sensitive to how they are worn. Side-by-side with the higher-end model, the HD228 lacks most notably in dynamic range and detail. The low end is not quite as extended or full as that of the HD238 but it is rather well-controlled in comparison to the latter running unamped. The bass of the HD228 tends towards being boomy rather than muddy and distorted, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

 

The mids are warm and quite clean. As with the higher-end model, the midrange of the HD228 is just a tad recessed in comparison to the low end. Both the midrange and treble of the HD228 are not nearly as textured and detailed as the HD238, which makes them less involving but actually easier to listen to, especially for long stretches. As expected, the treble of the HD228 is very smooth but lacks extreme extension. The overall tone is on the dark side but surprisingly not quite as dark as that of the HD238. Positioning is similar as well – the HD228 is not very good at conveying intimacy but also not as good at portraying distance as the open HD238 and, while the separation is quite decent, the presentation of the HD228 still does break down on busy passages.

 

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $99.95, Street Price: $60) Like the higher-end HD238, the HD228 is a very comfortable portable headphone that's unobtrusive and easy on the eyes. Though the attention to detail and build quality of the HD228 isn’t quite on the same level, it isolates slightly more than the higher-end model due to the closed design. The lesser technical proficiency of the HD228 in comparison to the higher-end set actually makes the faults that the headphones do share less glaring. Also, while the HD238 may be the better headphone technically, the HD228 is easier to bear for extended periods due in no small part to the poorer detailing and texturing. The cheaper price and lesser necessity for amping help make the easy-going HD228 a decent value in the portable world, though new users should be mindful of the headphone's picky attitude towards how it is worn.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 18 - 22,000 Hz

Impedance: 24 Ω

Sensitivity: 110 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 4.5ft (1.5m), single-sided; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

 

 

 

(B13) Sony MDR-XB500: The huge, pillow-like pads of the XB500, the middle headphone in Sony’s ‘Extra Bass’ line, seem like fitting vessels for the smooth and bassy sound signature imparted on the listener by these gentle giants.

Sony MDR-XB500.jpg
 

Build Quality (7.5/10): The design of the XB500 is clearly dominated by the humongous pads but the headphones themselves look quite tame and stylish. The headband and silver cups are plastic but the forks are made of anodized aluminum and feel very solid. There are no creaks or rattles in the structure after months of use. The pads are extremely soft and covered in very pleasant pleather that has a bit of a hand-sewn look to it. The XB500 is also notable for the ribbon-like flat cables, which feel rather sturdy and don’t tangle. Indeed, flat cables make much sense to me on a headphone than on an in-ear monitor. The strain reliefs on housing entry seem poorly integrated but are far from weak and the 3.5mm L-plug is compact and well-relieved.

 

Comfort (9/10): By virtue of the huge and impossibly soft pads, the XB500 is one of the most comfortable circumaurals around. Though the inner diameter of the pads is smaller than with larger phones like the Creative Aurvana Live, the pads encapsulate average-sized ears fully. The underside of the plastic headband is also well-padded with a cloth-like mesh cushion. Clamping force is moderate and makes the XB500 very secure in fit but is distributed exceptionally well by the gigantic pads and causes no discomfort. The only downside of the fit of the XB500 is that the pads do get squished down and swathe quite a large area of skin in sweat-invoking pleather.

 

Isolation (6.5/10): The XB500 isn’t particularly well-isolating for a headphone of its size but fares better than average due to the huge and well-sealing pads. Leakage is minimal at reasonable volumes but blasting these in a library is not a great idea – despite being marketed as closed headphones, there are vents on the back that leak consistently at high volumes.

 

Sound (6.25/10): As if the fact that they come from Sony’s “Extra Bass” audio line is not enough of an indicator, the ridiculous 4 Hz figure at the lower end of the XB500’s Frequency Response spec betrays the bass-focused nature of these headphones. The sound of the XB500 is indeed bass-driven, with a low end that (realistically) extends below 30 Hz and carries plenty of power. The bass is incredibly smooth and very forward. It can be distracting on some tracks but never sounds downright muddy or washed-out. Impact is soft and slightly dull but there’s plenty of it – bass lovers will be impressed. Unlike heavily-textured bass-heavy phones with sharper impact (e.g. the M-Audio Q40), the XB500s don’t give me bass headaches. They do, however, suffer from minimal bass bleed and have a moderately recessed midrange. The mids are slightly warm but sound quite full and rich when not overshadowed by the low end. Clarity is about on par with the Sennheiser PX100 and Koss PortaPros but not quite as good as the Beyer DT235 or Sony’s own MDR-Q68 clip-ons. The treble transition is rather smooth but the high end seems even more recessed than the midrange in comparison to the low end and rolls off earlier than expected. The treble does have some bite but lacks any real sparkle. On the upside, harshness and sibilance are completely absent. In terms of presentation, the Sonys sound fairly spacious and three-dimensional but lack real air and width. Their soundstage has fairly clear outer limits, at least when compared to something like the Senn HD238, which can throw positional cues at great distances. Overall I found the Sonys quite enjoyable in a warm and mushy sort of way. They are a fun listen but I never managed to forget that I was wearing moderately-priced headphones. It should be noted that the 40 Ω impedance of the XB500 helps them cut down on hiss very well with noisy portable players and even full-size headphone amps. On a related note, the headphones do sound extremely dull at the lowest volumes due to the forward bass. To get any sort of fine detail and texture out of them, higher volume levels are definitely recommended.

 

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $79.99, Street Price: $50) The Sony MDR-XB500 is a solid, albeit not truly hi-fi, performer in the $50 range. The bass is strong and smooth and generally remains quite competent despite being slightly dull in nature. The recessed midrange and treble can occasionally be overwhelmed but an equalizer can be used to compensate for the lack of balance. At the very least the Sonys are never harsh or grating. The headphones are also well built and extremely comfortable aside from the fact that they heat up quicker than many earmuffs. Those in search of reasonably competent closed basshead cans that can be worn for hours on end (ideally in cold climates) and don’t cost a fortune are likely to find their dream set in the XB500.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 4 - 24,000 Hz

Impedance: 40 Ω

Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m); Angled Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

(B14) Alessandro MS1: Entry-level model from Grado Labs’ globally-active partner

 

Alessandro MS1.jpg

Build Quality (8/10): As with all Grado and Alessandro headphones, the structure of the MS1 is extremely simple and consists of very few parts outside of the driver assembly. The construction is remarkably similar to Grado headphones of the previous generation (SR60, SR80, SR125, etc), with shallower cups compared to the newer –i models (SR60i, SR80i, etc). The only cosmetic difference between the MS1 and my SR80 aside from branding is the button-less cups – a trademark feature of all Alessandro headphones. As with the previously-reviewed SR60i, the headband of the MS1 is a simple piece of steel sheathed in unpadded leather and the 7ft-long cable is thick, tough, and terminated with a meaty 3.5mm plug. The overall build speaks not of refinement and luxury but rather quality and longevity.

 

Comfort (8.5/10): Like all of the Grado headphones, the on-ear fit of the MS1 can take some getting used to. Luckily, the headphone is light and the clamping force isn’t great. The headband can also be bent to shape and the foam pads become less itchy over time. Though the MS1 ships with Grado flat pads, I do think that the MS1 sounds slightly better with bowls, which attempt to be partially circumaural and have a hole in the center, but those must be purchased separately and make the headphones less comfortable.

 

Isolation (2/10): The MS1 provides no isolation of any sort and the only way they could leak more is if the drivers faced outward, and even that’s debatable. 

 

Sound (8/10): Though Alessandro does pursue a certain house sound with their retuning of Grado headphones, the MS1 is still very Grado-like in the great scheme of things. I’ve owned quite a few Grado sets – at least one iteration of every model from the iGrado to the SR325i with the exception of the SR225 - and the MS1 is just as forward and edgy as the rest of them when compared to the products of nearly any other manufacturer. But they all do differ in subtle ways and the extremes can sometimes stray a bit too far from the Grado sound to be enjoyable – case in point: the SR125, which was far too bright for me despite having detail and resolution superior to both the SR60i and SR80. But I digress. 

 

The low end of the Alessandro MS1 is very tight, competing with the Sennheiser PX200-II in control but offering a bit more punch. Extension is decent and there is a bit of mid-bass emphasis. The bass detail keeps up with the competition, attack speed is excellent, and texturing is simply superb, making instruments come to life like no other headphone can. The midrange is forward and aggressive. It is in excellent balance with the bass and treble and manages to be both relatively neutral and extremely engaging. Detail and clarity are top notch – the Alessandros really have a knack for sounding like there is neither space nor matter between the band and the listener. When listening to the MS1 back-to-back with the HD238, using the Alessandros was akin to being on-stage with the band while donning the Sennheisers made me think of standing among the trusses underneath. The treble of the MS1 is exceptionally crisp and energetic. While they are certainly bright headphones, they are never harsh or sibilant and appear to be slightly less bright than the Grado SR60i and SR80 and significantly darker than the SR125 and SR325i. As with other lower-end Grados, the MS1s have no soundstage to speak of but do a great job with separating out instruments. Positioning is quite decent and it’s very easy to pick out individual instruments. The overall coherence of the MS1’s sound signature is truly mind-blowing and a testament to the timelessness of the Grado signature. Those who don’t mind the speed and energy of the sound and don’t require impeccable (or any) soundstaging are sure to be pleased.

 

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $99, Street Price: $99) As a complete experience, listening to music with the MS1 is, for the lack of a better word, vivid, and fewer sacrifices in terms of coloration are made in comparison to the cheaper Grado SR60i, the similarly-priced SR80, or even the pricier SR125. Though the MS1 suffer from the same isolation, comfort, and portability issues as the competing Grados, they offer quite a lot of sonic bang for the buck. It should be noted that due to the global nature of Alessandro’s pricing, the MS1 may be an even better deal outside of the US, where the better-known Grado cans are often sold with huge markups. For those who wouldn’t mind a bit more excitement in their (audio) life, the MS1 is one of the best audio experiences $100 will buy.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 20 - 22,000 Hz

Impedance: 32 Ω

Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 7ft (2.1m); Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

 

 

(B15) Numark PHX Pro: Aging DJ headphone from Numark notable for the amazing versatility of its accessory pack and its modest price point
 

Numark PHX Pro.jpg

 

Build Quality (8/10): The build of the Numarks is representative of the majority of similarly-priced DJ headphones. The construction is mostly plastic with a bit of rubber on the headband. The headphones are flat-folding and collapsible and the joints feel smooth and precise. Though the similarly-priced ATH-M50, Denon DN-HP700, and Ultrasone HFI-450 all use slightly sturdier materials, the Numarks boast detachable cabling and screw-on pads, which add to their versatility. On the point of cabling, the Numarks ship with a trio of cords – 10-footers in both straight and coiled flavors as well as a 4-foot straight cord for portable use. All three cords terminate in a meaty L-plug a-la Sennheiser HD25-1. In addition, two pairs of pads are included – pleather and velour – as well as a pleather carrying pouch.

Comfort (8/10): The PHX Pro is a hair smaller than the average DJ headphone and the edges of the pads are a bit thicker than usual. As a result, the headphone is not entirely circumaural for me. Clamping force is medium in strength but the earpads and headband are soft and the headphones remain reasonably comfortable for some number of hours.

Isolation (7.5/10): The semi-circumaural nature of the PHX Pro slightly reduces the isolation the headphones are capable of providing but they still keep up fairly well with the other DJ cans.

Sound (7.75/10): Released back in 2004, the Numark PHX Pro was designed as a multi-purpose monitoring headphone that would match Numark’s mixers and yet be efficient enough for portable use. Indeed, the PHX Pro benefits from a dedicated amp far less than the similarly-priced Denon and Audio-Technica DJ headphones currently in my possession. More interesting, however, is the sound signature of the aging DJ headphone. The PHX Pro boasts a robust and full-bodied low end that acts as a solid platform for the rest of its sound signature. The headphones are rather fast and fairly aggressive, especially when it comes to mid-bass reproduction, but the bass can be toned down slightly by switching to the velour pads. Extension, both top and bottom, is quite good, though sub-bass is not nearly as strong as with the similarly-priced M-Audio Q40.

More remarkable, though, is the midrange of the PHX Pro - it is quite forward and rather lush in nature. Vocals come across very strongly which, despite the overall smoothness of the sound signature, results in a slight amount of vocal sibilance being detectable on certain tracks. Still, the midrange is fairly neutral tonally and surprisingly transparent. The treble, on the other hand, is bright and sparkly. The velour pads seem to accentuate the brightness slightly so using the pleather pair may be a partial solution for those who find the treble of the PHX too aggressive. Despite the bright treble, the mid-forward signature of the headphones, combined with the medium-sized soundstage, results in a slight lack of air in the upper registers. Overall instrument separation and detail are very good but the presentation is rather intimate on the whole and, like most mid-forward headphones, the PHX Pro can be slightly tiring for those used to more V-shaped balancing. Still, the headphone boasts a much more ambient and three-dimensional sound than most Grados or the narrow-sounding HD25. In addition, it offers an impressive dynamic range and does a good job of conveying subtlety when necessary. Personally, I found the PHX Pro very enjoyable for the type of sound signature it offers. Are there more technical headphones out there for the money? Sure. More enjoyable ones? Perhaps not.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $199.00, Street Price: $66) Though most retailers want around $100 for the Numark PHX Pro, looking around ebay and amazon can yield an open-box or even brand new set for as little as 2/3 of that. Numark’s generosity when it comes to pack-ins and the solid build quality, comfort, and isolation of the PHX Pro all make the headphone an extremely versatile listening device. A USB version is also available for those who don’t trust the audio output on their PC. In terms of sound signature, the PHX Pro holds its own fairly well against the ~$100 DJ headphones from M-Audio, Denon, Ultrasone, and Audio-Technica. Its sound signature is rather unique, with a robust low end, forward mids, and bright but not overly airy treble. Not everyone will like the Numark flavor, but those who do will have found a very competent multipurpose headphone for very little money.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 108 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 9.84ft (3m) straight, 4ft (1.2m) straight, and 9.84ft (3m) coiled , single-sided, detachable; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(B16) Ultrasone HFI-450 / Yamaha RH10MS: Entry-level full-size headphone from German manufacturer Ultrasone, rebranded by Yamaha as the RH10MS
 

ultrasonehfi450.jpgyamaharh10ms.jpg

 

Build Quality (8.5/10): The build of the HFI-450 is typical Ultrasone – tough plastic forks and hinges, a thick but minimally padded headband, and a 10-foot straight cable come together to form a well-constructed DJ headphone. Like most DJ cans, the HFI-450 is both flat-folding and collapsible. A soft carrying pouch is also included for storage and transport of the headphones.

Comfort (8.5/10): The HFI-450 clamps harder than the majority of similarly-priced DJ headphones but the fairly soft padding and oval-shaped cups allow the comfort to remain on-level with the others. Sadly, the small pleather insert on the headband does not deserve to be called padding but the essentially unpadded headband is only bothersome when compared to the generously-padded ATH-M50 and Denon DN-HP700. As with the other large pleather-padded cans, the HFI-450/RH10MS can get warm after prolonged listening sessions.

Isolation (8/10): Isolation is better than that of the lighter-clamping Denons and Numarks and stacks up well to my higher-end Ultrasone Pro 650 despite the smaller size and thinner pads of the HFI-450.

Sound (7.5/10): The Ultrasone HFI-450 (rebranded as the Yamaha RH10MS) is Ultrasone’s entry-level DJ model. As is often the case with entry-level gear from major manufacturers, the HFI-450 sacrifices a bit of sound quality here and there compared to my pricier Pro 650 and Pro 2500 sets but retains their general sound signature. Though smoother overall compared to the similarly-priced Denon DN-HP700 and Audio-Technica ATH-M50, the HFI-450 is limited in frequency response and resolution by tuning and driver choice. The low end doesn’t roll off particularly early but the bass of the HFI-450 is neither as deep nor as punchy as that of the ATH-M50. The Ultrasones are certainly capable of producing both note and impact but neither feels visceral next to the Audio-Technicas despite being plentiful in empirical terms. Low-end detail is quite decent but texture is lacking slightly – the HFI-450 generally sounds a bit smoothed-over, almost glossy, when it comes to texturing.

The mids are clear of bass bleed but take a half-step back in terms of emphasis compared to the bass. The notes are a bit thick, which is also the case with my higher-end Ultrasones, and transparency suffers slightly as a result. Male vocals generally come across smoothly and powerfully while some female vocals lack the luster provided by the more mid-forward Numark PHX Pro. The treble is in good balance with the midrange but possessed at least one huge spike out of the box, which brought about bucketloads of sibilance on certain tracks. After a couple of dozen hours the headphones seemed to have smoothed right out, leaving behind competent but not attention-grabbing treble response. The high end is clearly less prominent than those of the Denon HP700, ATH-M50, and Sennheiser HD25. In fact, mediocre top end extension is one of the few obvious limitations of the HFI-450.

Like almost all of Ultrasone’s headphones, the HFI-450 / RH10MS boasts Ultrasone’s S-Logic technology, which promises to create a realistic 3-dimensional soundstage using the wearer’s outer ear geometry just as ‘natural’ sound would. The HFI-450 is indeed quite ambient-sounding next to my (rather forward) HD25 but misses out on the positioning precision of the Sennheisers. Soundstage width and depth are above average but everything sounds a bit smeared and imprecise. The HFI-450 also seems to place the headstage a bit farther back in my own head than I would like – the cheaper Ultrasone Zino had this problem as well. I keep on wanting to move the headphones forward on my ears. In terms of general tone, the HFI-450 / RH10MS is slightly warmer and significantly darker than both the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and Denon DN-HP700. The thickness of note, combined with the darker tone, makes the Ultrasones sound a bit dull compared to the Denons, Audio-Technicas, and even the Numark PHX Pros. Conversely, the HFI-450 is the least tiring and demanding of the listener – a trait it shares with the higher-end Pro 650/2500 models but not the budget-minded Zino. A final point to note – the HFI-450 is nearly as efficient as the Numarks and benefits little from a high-powered amp. A portable amp might be of limited help if using them with a weak portable device but anything greater yields no real benefit.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $119.00, Street Price: $81) The Ultrasone HFI-450 / Yamaha RH10MS is a well-built, well-isolating, and very comfortable closed headphone that retails at a slightly lower price point than the Denon DN-HP700 and Audio-Technica ATH-M50, as it should. The HFI-450 is the smallest, most securely-fitting, and arguably the most portable of the bunch, making it a very well-rounded choice. In sheer sound quality, however, it doesn’t quite keep up with the Japanese competitors. When listening to the HFI-450 it feels as if Ultrasone could’ve done much better but didn’t want the 450 to compete with higher-end products, which happens very often with entry-level models from manufacturers with large lineups. Too bad, really, as the HFI-450 / RH10MS does lots of things very right. In sound quality, however, it will always be second (third, fourth, etc) best.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 96 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 9.8ft (3m) single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(B17) Koss Pro DJ100: Impressive DJ can from one of Head-Fi’s favorite budget-minded manufacturers
 

Koss Pro DJ100.jpg

 

Build Quality (8.5/10): Having recently reviewed a number of DJ headphones from big name manufacturers such as Audio-Technica, Denon, and Ultrasone, I was surprised by just how well-built the $80 DJ100 is. Much of the hardware is metal, including the inner headband, rotating hinges, and the outside of the earcups. There is still plastic used on the forks and inside the cups but on the whole the build is quite impressive. The thick coiled cable is on the heavy side but terminates in an iPhone-friendly 3.5mm plug, implying that Koss intended for the DJ100 to be used portably. And of course Koss is willing to back the solidity of their headphones with the usual lifetime warranty and replace the headphones for the cost of shipping should anything go wrong.

Comfort (8/10): The DJ100 is circumaural in size but the cups aren’t very deep on the whole. Clamping force is fairly low and the headphones still remain comfortable for quite a while when worn. A side effect of the low clamping force and loose fit is that the DJ100 is slightly less stable when worn on-the-go than some of the other sets in its class.

Isolation (7/10): The slightly shallow fit limits isolation somewhat but sound leakage is extremely minimal.

Sound (7.75/10): Despite having impedance and sensitivity identical to the ATH-M50 and Denon DN-HP700, the Koss Pro DJ100 exhibits higher dependence on amplification than both - and it’s not just the need for power. Synergy plays a huge role with the headphones and many amps simply don’t mesh well with them. A neutral or slightly mid-centric amp is preferred – I had good results with the Tianyun Zero, iBasso D10 (stock caps), and a mini3. Skipping the amp altogether is a poor idea – the DJ100 only reaches a fraction of its full potential unamped - the ATH-M50, Numark PHX Pro, and even the Denon DN-HP700 sound noticeably better straight out of my portable players. With a proper amp the low end tightens and increases in quantity, the soundstage opens up, and the upper midrange and treble become smoother and less fatiguing. Naturally, the DJ100 does not become a completely different headphone with the addition of an amp but it’s enough of an improvement to make me unwilling to use them without one.

Koss advertises the DJ100 as having ‘Extreme Bass’, which couldn’t be farther from the truth to my ears. The bass is well-balanced and quite linear, with immediate impact and good speed. My well-burned-in set of DJ100s trails the Denon DN-HP700 very slightly in bass quantity and makes the ATH-M50s sound like absolute bass monsters. My usual reference set, the Sennheiser HD25, offers bass that is more tactile, forward, and impactful but also slightly more forward and intrusive than that of the DJ100. The midrange of the DJ100s is completely free of bass bleed but never sounds thin or lacking. In fact, the upper midrange is slightly forward (and becomes more so with the addition of a powerful amp) and most of the headphone’s energy is carried through the mids. Interestingly, the midrange of the DJ100 seems to carry slightly thinner notes than the bass and treble – an odd characteristic for a single transducer but one that makes the headphones sound leaner and crisper. Vocals, especially female vocals, come across very strongly and carry plenty of texture. Those who find themselves easily fatigued by strong upper midrange presence will probably want to give the DJ100s a pass but lovers of forward, slightly resonant vocals will undoubtedly be pleased with the overall balance.

Moving on up into the treble, the DJ100 doesn’t sound perfectly smooth to me, but then headphones with strong treble presence almost never do. It does get slightly smoother with an amp but many of the more laid-back sets still have the upper hand by a mile when it comes to smoothness. Treble clarity is excellent and detail is on-par with the other similarly-priced DJ sets. There is a tiny bit of perceptible treble roll-off at the very top – hardly an issue under normal listening conditions but noticeable in a head-to-head comparison with the HD25-1. On the whole the DJ100 is still slightly brighter and colder than neutral but not distractingly so. The dynamic range is lacking slightly as well – the DJ100 is a bit ‘shouty’ in nature, not unlike a lower-end Grado headphones or the HD25; subtlety is not really its strong suit although it fares more than well enough for an $80 headphone. The presentation, on the other hand, is really quite good for a closed headphone. The soundstage has good depth and width and only gets bigger with amplification. The HD25 sounds positively claustrophobic in comparison. Separation and imaging are good as well but the DJ100 wouldn’t be my first choice for big-band or orchestral pieces. It does work surprisingly well for gaming, however. In addition, the DJ100 is extremely revealing of poor source material – pairing them with an unamped portable player and 128k mp3s is a recipe for major disappointment.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $79.99, Street Price: $80) The Koss Pro DJ100 is a solid mid-range headphone that scores plenty of points for build and sound quality but loses out heavily on portability, partly due to the somewhat heavy construction and low clamping force and partly due to the amplification requirement. There is still much to like about the DJ100 – for a headphone that can easily be found in US retail stores it is priced very reasonably and the lifetime warranty should be a welcome reprieve for those who like to be rough on their gear. As usual, the sound signature won’t be for everyone – the DJ100 boasts tight and controlled bass, mids with a slight peak towards the top, and prominent treble. I think they excel with acoustic and vocal-centric tracks and break down with hard rock and metal, for which they really don’t have the correct tonal balance, and big-band/orchestral pieces, which benefit from a less aggressive presentation. With that in mind, the Koss Pro DJ100 extends the bang/buck of the other Koss headphones featured in this review to a whole different price range – a great proposition for budget-conscious buyers.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10 - 25,000 Hz
Impedance: 38 Ω
Sensitivity: 99 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.91ft (1.2m) single-sided, coiled; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

Special thanks to tdockweiler for generously loaning me his beloved DJ100 for an entire month!

 


 

(B18) Denon DN-HP700: Mid-range DJ headphone from Japanese audio giant Denon, priced to compete with the likes of the Ultrasone HFI-450 and Audio-Technica ATH-M50

 

Denon DN-HP700.jpg

Build Quality (8.5/10): Built like a typical DJ headphone, the HP700 is made mostly out of hard and heavy plastic with the exception of the grilels, which are metal inserts, and the inner headband. Like most DJ headphones in its price range, the HP700 is both flat-folding and collapsible and comes with a long and thick coiled cord. The construction feels solid and should be nearly bulletproof in consumer applications.

Comfort (8/10): The Denons clamp very lightly but stay on securely due to their weight and circumaural fit. Headband padding is quite soft but compresses easily and doesn’t provide the long-term comfort of the similarly-priced ATH-M50. The earcup pads on the HP700 also feel a bit flat compared to those of the M50, bottoming out on my ears. Fortunately the low clamping force prevents the mediocre padding from becoming an issue and also stops the HP700 from becoming as sweaty following lengthy listening sessions as the ATH-M50 or Ultrasone HFI-450.

Isolation (7/10): Isolation is decent but not great for a large circumaural DJ headphone due to the stiff pads and low clamping force. They will tone down some outside noise but I wouldn’t use them on a plane. Leakage is extremely minimal.

Sound (8.5/10): While the build, comfort, and isolation of the HP700 are competent, they don’t give it a leg up on most of the competition – nearly all DJ phones are well-built, reasonably comfortable, and have a tendency to isolate. Sound is another matter however – of all the half-dozen $100 studio and DJ cans I’ve tried, the Denons stand alongside the ATH-M50 as the best of the best, but only when run through a proper amplifier. With my mini3, the HP700 encroached on the ATH-M50 in overall performance. With my Tianyun Zero, the Denons are at least as good as the Audio-Technicas, which came as a huge surprise since I’ve never seen a single mention of them around head-fi while the ATH-M50 pops up in every other thread. But enough rambling – on to the sound.

One of the hallmarks of the DN-HP700 is the excellent presence across the entire frequency range. The low end drops down below 30Hz without losing ground and is still audible below 25Hz. Impact is plentiful for me but slightly less immediate than that of the ATH-M50. Overall bass quantity is only a bit less than with the ATH-M50 and HD25-1 when the Denons are fed enough power. The slight drop in bass power compared to the HD25 actually allows the Denons to be tighter and more controlled, which is very impressive. The low end is well-textured and full-bodied in nature. It is quick, carries a good amount of energy, and always sounds natural. Among all of my DJ-style headphones, the bass of the DN-HP700 aligns best with my preferences – for a mid-range DJ can it really is very polite but still not lacking in emphasis.

The midrange is smooth and sweet and remains in balance with the bass and treble when the HP700 is supplied with sufficient power. From a weak portable player like my Sansa Clip, the mids are slightly recessed. Clarity and detail are very impressive and there is no bass bloat to obscure the midrange. The note of the HP700 lacks the crispness and sharpness of the HD25, which may be a positive for those who find the Sennheisers a bit too edgy, but the difference isn’t great. Compared to the Ultrasone HFI-450 and PRO 650, the Denons are still extremely well-defined and articulated, almost hyper-detailed – definitely closer to the HD25-1 than anything else I own. Like the Sennheisers, the Denons exhibit some peakiness in the upper midrange and treble and can be extremely unforgiving of recordings with poor mastering. The treble-sensitive would be well-advised to steer clear of the HP700.

The treble carries plenty of sparkle and has good clarity and air. Extension is excellent and the HP700 has no trouble at the limits of my hearing, same as the HD25-1. The overall tone of the Denons is on the cooler side of neutral – they are one of the only sets I’ve heard that makes the HD25 sound slightly warm. Microdetail lags slightly behind the HD25 but the presentation easily makes for that – the soundstage of the HP700 doesn’t shine in depth but has good width, making the HD25-1 sound compressed. The HP700 also separates quite well which, combined with a good sense of space, allows it to handle complex passages better than the HD25 and at least on-par with the ATH-M50. Still, the HP700 is an aggressive headphone and does tend to favor an in-your-face presentation despite having the technical capacity for so much more. Using the popular room analogy, the HD25 is akin to sitting in a hermetically sealed two-car garage right in front of the band, the DN-HP700 is like sitting only a foot farther from the band but in a moderately large auditorium. Switching to the Ultrasone PRO 650, on the other hand, makes me feel like I just stood up and moved to the back row. It isn’t surprising, then, that I find the Ultrasones easily the most relaxing of the bunch - the bright and detailed nature of the Denons makes them rather demanding on the listener, not unlike my beloved ATH-CK10 IEMs. For those who like that sort of presentation, listening to the DN-HP700 can be an incredibly rewarding experience. For everyone else, the Denons could be a mixed bag.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $139.99, Street Price: $99) Unlike the lower-end DN-HP500, the Denon DN-HP700 faces some very fierce competition in its size and price class, namely from the venerable Audio-Technica ATH-M50. The M50 is slightly more comfortable and a bit more isolating than the HP700. It also possesses a more ‘popular’ sound signature – the M50 is heavier on the bass and lighter on the treble than the Denons tend to be. The HP700 loses additional points (since this is a portable headphone shootout, after all) for being slightly harder to drive. Operational issues aside, I still feel that the sound of the HP700 is more than worth the price of admission. Considering the amount of praise the ATH-M50 gets around here, the Denons are clearly vastly underrated and those who find the ATH-M50 too bass-heavy or v-shaped for their liking should seriously consider the Denons as an alternative.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10 - 30,000 Hz
Impedance: 38 Ω
Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.91ft (1.2m) single-sided, coiled; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(B19) AKG K430: Closed consumer-oriented ‘mini’ headphone from AKG

AKG K430.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): The K430 is nearly identical in size to the similarly-priced Sennheiser PX200-II but uses a more conventional folding mechanism. The hinges are plastic but glide smoothly and lock into place. The quality of the plastics won’t threaten any of the beefy DJ cans but is good for a small portable. The single-sided cable is complete with a volume control but seems quite wimpy next to the cabling of the cheaper Meelec HT-21 and dB Logic HP-100. Strain relief on the 3.5mm plug is nice and soft, unlike that of the PX200-II.

Comfort (8/10): The K430 uses a simplified version of AKG’s 3D Axis folding mechanism, which gives the cups freedom of motion similar to those of the PX200-II. The K430 clamps a bit less, though, and remains comfortable for quite a while despite being supraaural. The balloon-like rubber headband padding can take a bit of getting used to but isn’t uncomfortable, though I still prefer the conventional cushy pad of the HT-21.

Isolation (6/10): For a small supraaural headphone the isolation of the K430 is quite good – a bit less than that of the PX200-II due to the lower clamping force but still suitable for outside use. Leakage is low but still present at higher volumes.

Sound (7/10): Despite being a consumer-oriented set, the AKG K430 is rather balanced and articulate in comparison to the K518-series ‘DJ’ portables. The bass is neither as impactful nor as boomy as that of the K518. There is a good amount of punch but not nearly enough for the headphones to be called ‘bass-heavy’. Extension is not the greatest but adequate – about on-par with the PX200-II and other similarly-priced ‘mini’ headphones, although sets with more of a mid-bass hump will usually have better extension as a side effect. Bass detail is decent and definition is quite good. In stark contrast to the K518, the bass of the K430 is not the focal point of its signature but merely a supporting characteristic and is therefore adequate but not groundbreaking in both quality and quantity.

The strongest aspect of the K430 is probably the midrange – it is clear, crisp, and fairly detailed, making the Maxell DHP-II sound quite a bit warmer and a little muffled in comparison. The mids of the K430 are also smooth and articulate, albeit not as textured as they could be. Transparency is surprisingly good in the midrange but there’s an odd glassy shimmer reaching well into the lower treble, which probably results from the combination of high clarity and low texture. I don’t mind it but it takes away from the overall realism of the experience a little. The treble itself is crisp and mostly inoffensive. There is a slight metallic tinge but nowhere near as bad as with the HD25-1. Harshness and sibilance are very low and what few treble peaks are there seem quite shallow. Extension is very good, making the DHP-II sound rolled-off at the top and keeping up easily with the Audio-Technica SQ5.

In terms of presentation the K430 fares well taking into account that it is a tiny closed-back headphone. The dynamic range of the drivers AKG chose for the headphone is quite good, allowing the K430 to portray subtlety well, but the presentation just isn’t very enveloping. The result is a slightly tubular soundstage with decent separation and good layering. Distance cues are pretty accurate and the K430 isn’t notably ‘closed’-sounding like a lot of cheaper closed sets tend to be. The tone is mostly neutral with a bit of coloration coming from the shimmery midrange. The resulting sound is quite natural and very coherent – headphones with better layering, such as the DHP-II, sound a bit disjointed next to the K430 – it is as if the blobs in the K430’s three-blob soundstage overlap (in a good way). Admittedly, the similarly-priced but significantly larger ATH-SQ5 gives a slightly better sense of vertical and transverse (front-to-rear) space but neither can be confused for a good open-back set.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $139.95, Street Price: $92) AKG’s consumer-class K430 ‘mini’ headphone stays true to its name, impressing first and foremost with the convenience of its form factor. The headphones are very small, with the provided cushioned carrying case fitting easily into my laptop bag, and stay comfortable a bit longer than Sennheiser’s competing PX200-II despite the odd air-cushioned rubber headband padding. Isolation and build quality are on-par with the Sennheiser pair and the sound signature takes a middle ground between the fun sound of the Maxell DHP-II and more relaxed sets such as the ATH-M30 and Beyer DT235. If the ‘mini’ form factor is not a requirement, some of the larger sets offer bang/buck but with the convenience factored in the K430 performs just well enough for the asking price. One detail that needs pointing out is the cable length – a potential issue for those with 6-foot frames. The cord on my set measured just over 1m flat – a far cry from the 1.2m quoted on the specsheet.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 12 - 28,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 125 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.4ft (1.05m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, Collapsible

Special thanks to dweaver for letting me review his K430!




(B20) Sony MDR-XB700: The XB700 may not be as small or light as the lower-end XB-series models, but that hasn’t stopped bass lovers from using them on the go

Sony MDR-XB700.jpg

Build Quality (8/10): The design of the XB700 is clearly dominated by the humongous memory foam pads. The headband and silver cups are plastic but the forks are reinforced with aluminum and feel very solid. As with the cheaper XB500, there is no play in the structure as the XB700 is neither flat-folding nor collapsible and the tangle-free flat cables, though not removable, feel quite sturdy.

Comfort (9/10): By virtue of the huge and impossibly soft pads, the XB700, like its smaller and lighter XB500 sibling, is one of the most comfortable headphones around. The pads are easily large enough to encapsulate my ears fully and the underside of the plastic headband is well-padded. Clamping force is mild and the XB700 remains comfortable for hours but still fits very securely. The only downside to the fit is that the pads do get squished down and swathe quite a large area of skin in hot, sweat-invoking pleather, though this could be an upside in cooler climates.

Isolation (7/10): The XB700 isn’t particularly well-isolating for a headphone of its size but fares better than average due to the huge and well-sealing pads. Leakage is minimal at reasonable volumes but blasting these in a library is not a great idea – despite being marketed as closed headphones, there are vents on the back that leak consistently at high volumes.

Sound (7.25/10): For headphones hailing from a mainstream manufacturer’s ‘Extra Ba/strongss’ line, the Sony XB500 and XB700 are quite well-liked around Head-Fi, and with good reason – they are, quite simply, a guilty pleasure, offering gobs of bass without undeserving upmarket pricing or claims of high fidelity. I’ve looked at the lower-end XB500 previously and found its warm and mushy antics to be expectedly imperfect for critical listening but surprisingly relaxing and enjoyable on the whole. The XB700 may not be worth picking over the XB500 for those interested in maintaining a semblance of portability but I think they are a better-sounding set from a technical standpoint.

Like the cheaper XB500, the XB700 is ridiculously bass-heavy, with a quoted frequency extension of 3 Hz at the bottom end and enough impact to rattle loose teeth. The bass is deep and forward, sometimes excessively so, but not of the muddy, washed-out, fart-cannon kind that most mainstream ‘enhanced-bass’ headphones and earphones put out. Attack is a bit quicker than it is with the XB500, causing the XB700 to sound slightly more aggressive, but on the whole it is still a smooth and somewhat softer-sounding set. One thing that the XB700 does a bit better than the XB500 is keep the lower mids free of bass bleed - the crest of the XB700’s bass hump seems to be lower down than that of the XB500. This is most likely due to the larger drivers not having to work as hard to deliver the desired amount of bass (which makes the upcoming 70mm MDR-XB1000 all the more interesting). The result is a slight increase in the lower-midrange recession as well as a decrease in warmth compared to the XB500. The midrange of the XB700 certainly is quite recessed but the mids themselves are surprisingly crisp and articulate regardless, with a slight drop in lower-midrange fullness compared to the XB500 and Phiaton MS400. Clarity is quite good as well – a bit better than with the Beats Solo and V-Moda Crossfade and on-par with the pricier Phiaton MS400.

The treble of the XB700, unlike that of the XB500, is no more recessed than the midrange, maintaining surprisingly good presence up into the high 15kHz range. Treble response is not very even but it isn’t harsh or sibilant, either. There’s not much sparkle but on the whole the XB700 is surprisingly crisp and competent. The presentation is enjoyable as well, with slightly better separation and a better overall sense of space compared to the XB500. There’s still a limit to the distances the XB700 can portray but layering is usually quite good for a bass-forward consumer-class can and positioning is fairly convincing. Interestingly, despite being more efficient than the Beats, they pair fairly well with my desktop amp but still require higher volumes for maximum detailing and texturing, sounding a bit dull and thumpy at minimal output levels. On the whole, the colored and uncompromisingly bass-heavy sound of the XB700 won’t be winning any fidelity awards any time soon but as a ‘guilty pleasure’ for closet (or not) bass fanatics, it is difficult to beat.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $129.99, Street Price: $80) The combination of smooth but heavy bass and recessed but crisp midrange and treble of the XB700 makes for an exiting and enjoyable – if not hi-fi – sound signature. The headphones are also well-built and extremely plush and comfortable aside from the fact that they heat up quicker than many earmuffs. Those in search of reasonably competent closed basshead cans that can be worn for hours on end (ideally in cold climates) and don’t cost a fortune are likely to find their dream set in the XB700. However, I do struggle imagining myself wearing the huge head-pillows away from home and on that count the Sonys really cannot compete with most of the other cans tested here.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 3 - 28,000 Hz
Impedance: 24 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

For a longer review of the XB700 with comparisons to the Phiaton MS400, B&W P5, V-Moda Crossfade LP, Monster Beats Solo, & Sennheiser HD25-1, see here

 

 


(B21) Sony MDR-V6: Entry-level studio monitors ubiquitous among audio professionals and famous for their long-term durability

Sony MDR-V6.jpg

Build Quality (9/10): Originally introduced in the 1980s as the entry-level model in Sony’s professional monitor lineup, the V6 has aged very well. In a sentence (or rather, a cliché), they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore. The housings of the V6 are slightly more low-profile compared to many of today’s Studio sets and the flexible headband allows the Sonys to collapse into a very portable package. Unlike the popular DJ-style headphones from Audio-Technica, Denon, Ultrasone, and others, the MDR-V6 lacks hinge pivots and is not flat-folding. The housings are aluminum and the 10’-long coiled cord can take quite a lot of abuse. In fact, stories of V6s withstanding near-constant abuse for 10, 15, or even 20 years with only the pads warranting occasional replacement abound.

Comfort (8/10): MDR-V6 may be smaller than the ATH-M50 and most of the other DJ-style sets but it will still be circumaural for all but those with the largest ears. The cups aren’t as large or deep as those of the MDR-ZX700 and pads aren’t as pleasant to the touch but clamping force is fairly mild and the V6 is quite light. The pads of the V6 are covered in thin pleather (a-la Sennheiser’s HD428) but don’t heat up as quickly as the more luxurious pads of the MDR-ZX700. The wide headband is minimally padded but quite comfortable, reminding me of higher-end Alessandro and Grado models.

Isolation (8/10): The isolation is quite adequate for portable use though it trails that of the ZX700 slightly due to the shallower cups and thinner pads.

Sound (7.75/10): The MDR-V6 has managed to maintain its popularity among both audio professionals and budget-minded audiophiles for a reason – the headphones manage to maintain very good fidelity across the range and yet never really sound lean or boring. The bass, for one, really surpassed my expectations. Instead of trying to be flat and level, the V6 adds a good bit of punch and power to the low end, making detail and texture quite prominent even in portable applications. The lows are a little thick in nature and tend to linger a little next to the quicker, crisper-sounding ZX700, but although the low end could be a bit tighter, the V6 is generally quite pleasant to listen to. Extension and depth are quite good as well, handily beating out the larger and pricier ZX700. The subbass response is especially impressive, providing a good amount of controlled and accurate low-end rumble when called on by the track.

The midrange is slightly recessed at the bottom end and can sound a touch dark due to the moderate bass emphasis of the headphones. The treble, on the other hand, is quite prominent and does win out in terms of tonal coloration, making the V6 sound rather neutral with a very slight predisposition towards coolness on the whole. Next to the thicker low end, the midrange of the V6 is somewhat lean-sounding next to the more balanced MDR-ZX700. Detail and clarity in the midrange and treble are quite good but, while the recessed lower mids start out sounding rather smooth, the Sonys do get a touch grainy towards the upper midrange. The lower treble is hyped up but usually causes neither harshness nor sibilance in significant quantities. As with the Senn HD25, the treble emphasis of the V6 gives the sound a bit of an edgy quality, which can manifest as a metallic ‘tinge’, though this is less noticeable with the Sonys than the Sennheisers. Top-end extension is decent but not outstanding, as is the soundstage. The Sonys have good separation and are able to discern very small detail on a track but when it comes to placing all of the small details in the sonic space, they get overwhelmed more easily than the similarly-intimate HD25 or even the cheaper PX200-II. Combined with the relatively forward overall sound, the mediocre positioning leaves a bit to be desired next to some of the other similarly-priced studio cans as well as Sony’s own MDR-ZX700. I don’t think they sound notably congested but the excellent layering of the HD25 just isn’t there, making the V6 sound more ‘closed-in’. Part of the issue stems from the mediocre dynamic range of the Sonys, which makes the headphones a bit indiscriminate in terms of the relative emphasis placed on sonic cues. For the asking price, however, even I feel that I am being a bit nit-picky with the Sonys. On the whole they are very revealing and yet surprisingly fun headphones that work both for casual listening and studio applications. I have read complaints of harshness and listening fatigue but after several 5-6 hour sessions with the Sonys, I have to say that they are, if anything, more relaxing than my HD25s over extended listening. It should, of course, go without saying that the soft-and-smooth Phiaton MS400 or Sony’s own ZX700 would make better relaxation headphones than a pair of studio monitors.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $109.99, Street Price: $75) Despite its age, the MDR-V6 really is a headphone that does very little wrong for the asking price. It is well-built, comfortable, and isolating enough to compete with the best ‘modern’ studio and DJ headphones. In terms of portability, the V6 loses out to purpose-built mini headphones but fares better than the ATH-M50 or Ultrasone HFI-450 aside from the coiled cord, which I don’t actually like for portable use (a straight cord is much more manageable with a cable tie or two). The timeless sound signature also impresses, managing to be fairly accurate without appearing lean or sterile. Those who get annoyed by slightly exaggerated treble response will probably want to pick up a more balanced set but for the asking price I have no bone to pick with the overall sound quality of the Sonys.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5 - 30,000 Hz
Impedance: 63 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 10ft (3m) single-sided, coiled; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible

Big thanks to JamesMcProgger for the MDR-V6 loan!

 


 

(B22) Audio Technica ATH-SQ5: sleek & compact circumaural portable from Audio-Technica

Audio-Technica ATH-SQ5.jpg

 

Build Quality (6.5/10): The plastic-fantastic construction of the ATH-SQ5 is far less interesting than the straight-edge aesthetics of the headphones but gets the job done. For the most part the SQ5 is quite similar in construction to the cheaper ATH-FC700, with a plastic frame built around the thin metal headband. On the upside, the SQ5 is extremely light and does nothing more than simply fold flat for storage, meaning that less is likely to go wrong. The modular cord, identical to the one found on the ATH-FC700, seems sturdy and well-relieved.

Comfort (9/10): The SQ5 is a compact supraaural headphone and does tend to bottom out on my ears and cause a build-up of pressure over time even though the soft vinyl pads are reminiscent of the other mid-range Audio-Technica headphones and the headband is well-padded (in contrast to the FC700). Still, weighing in at less than 6oz (170g) and boasting a fairly light clamp, the SQ5 is a headphone I can wear comfortably hour after hour.

Isolation (7/10): As a small, closed circumaural headphone, the SQ5 isolates better than the ATH-ES7 and ATH-FC700 but the cups really aren’t deep enough for it to match the isolation of larger sets such as the Sony MDR-ZX700 or Ultrasone HFI-450.

Sound (7/10): Though the SQ series has been around for some time, it is the higher-end models of the ES series that have garnered all of the praise around Head-Fi when it comes to sound quality. Oddly, I feel that it is the SQ5 that possesses a more neutral and accurate sound whereas the ES7 and ESW9 are more on the fun-and-colored side. The bass of the SQ5 is tight and very controlled and the sound produced is quick, accurate, and highly resolved. The amount of punch is similar to the Meelec HT-21 but the HT-21 has a bit more boom and body. There’s a small amount of roll-off, too, so die-hard bass lovers won’t be pleased. In addition, the SQ5 begins to distort much quicker than most of the similarly-priced DJ sets if the bass is adjusted via EQ. Extremely high volumes can make the SQ5 distort slightly as well (though it could be argued that this is a safety feature). Personally, I like the SQ5’s low end just fine – it stays out of the way until prodded and, when necessary, delivers quick, tight impact without a hint of bloat. However, I can see the lack of mid/upper bass body bothering some listeners.

The midrange of the SQ5 is neither overshadowed by nor dominant over the low end. In contrast to the cheaper ATH-FC700, the SQ5 derives very little warmth from its bass and sounds neither veiled nor overly intimate. The mids of the SQ5 are crisp and clear, with more detail and texture than is afforded by the budget-oriented Meelec HT-21 and increasing emphasis towards the top of the midrange. Like the HT-21, the SQ5 is on the lean side in terms of note thickness and won’t please those looking for the kind of thick, lush sound delivered by the likes of the Maxell DHP-II. At the same time, the SQ5 is not as forward or aggressive in the midrange as the HT-21 and won’t immediately offend those who prefer a more laid-back sound. It is the treble, however, where the SQ5 scores the most points with me – it is clear and extremely crisp, with ample sparkle and very good definition. The SQ5 is not one for the treble-sensitive but it doesn’t offend with harshness or sibilance, either – the peaks and valleys are relatively mild and manage to avoid the dangerous bits of treble response. The treble emphasis actually reminds me of the ATH-EM7GM as well as Audio-Technica’s higher-end in-ears. Detailing is slightly better than with the Meelec HT-21 and the SQ5 extends a bit more effortlessly to the limits of my hearing.

The presentation of the ATH-SQ5 is airy and fairly broad. Soundstage width is average but the slightly thin sound makes them sound more spacious than they really are. For the most part, elements are positioned where they should be but the SQ5 doesn’t have the layering of the AKG Q460 or the separation of the Sennheiser PX200-II. Part of the problem might be the average dynamic range of the headphones – the dynamics really tend to be constrained to the milder side of things regardless of the track. Tonally, the SQ5 is very slightly darker than the HT-21 and slightly brighter than the Sennheiser PX90. This makes it one of the more neutral-sounding sets in my collection, which is not to say that it is boring in the least - the overall balance makes for a very energetic sound – in the in-ear world, its equivalent would be something along the lines of the Maximo iM-590, which has always been one of my favorite sets in its price bracket. Of course my personal preferences do lean towards the analytical but I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed the SQ5 more than any other sub-$100 headphone I’ve heard in the past month.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $129.99, Street Price: $75) Audio-Technica’s midrange SQ5 portable may not be as striking to behold as the mirror-polished ATH-ES7 but gains points back easily when it comes to comfort and isolation. Clear, airy, and sparkly, the sound of the SQ5 also holds a definite appeal to the analytical listener in me. With bass that is somewhat low on impact and body but still quite quick and accurate, the SQ5 isn’t a Monster Beats competitor but rather an alternative to the more accurate Sennheiser PX200-II and Beyer DT235. As with most Audio-Technica models, the SQ5 comes in a variety of color combinations and may just be the perfect portable for those who can enjoy the balanced sound signature and appreciate the straight lines and sharp edges of the headphone.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10 - 25,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 102.5 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 1.6ft (50cm) + 3.3ft (1m) extension; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

 

 

(B23) Pioneer SE-MJ5: Supraaural DJ-style headphone from Pioneer

Pioneer SE-MJ5.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): The construction of the MJ5 is quite typical of a cheaper DJ-style headphone. Though all of the elements seem to be in place, the load-bearing parts are made entirely of plastic and don’t inspire as much confidence as the metal frame of Sony’s legendary MDR-V6 or the industrial build of Ultrasone’s HFI-450. Despite the plasticky structure, the SE-MJ5 is no lighter than the V6, which I found slightly odd. On the upside, the supraaural headphones are both flat-folding and collapsible and come with a portable-length single-sided cord reminiscent of the thicker cables on the Sony MDR-ZX700 and Ultrasone HFI-15G. Another thing Pioneer did right was equip the MJ5 with easily-interchangeable velour and pleather pads (much like those used by the Numark PHX).

Comfort (7/10): The SE-MJ5 is a large supraaural set similar in size to the AKG K181DJ. Like most supraaural DJ headphones, it boasts moderately high clamping force – a little stronger than the HD25 but not quite on the AKG K81 level – and can get very fatiguing for those sensitive to supraaural fitment. On the upside, it comes with two sets of thick pads (one velour, one pleather) and the multi-axis folding mechanism makes the fit highly adjustable.

Isolation (6.5/10): The SE-MJ5 is billed as a closed headphone but the large number of ‘vents’ located on the earcups says otherwise. The isolation is decent for a semi-closed set but there is a fair bit of leakage at higher volumes. As a library headphone, the MJ5 simply won’t do.

Sound (7/10): The sound of the MJ5 is somewhat atypical of entry-level DJ headphones, with the usual warm-and-bassy sound signature supplemented by plentiful treble and a surprising sense of space. The bass provides a robust platform for the rest of the sound, beating out Sony’s MDR-V6 in quantity and impact and matching up in extension and depth. Decay times aren’t the quickest and the character of the bass tends towards ‘boomy’, giving the MJ5 a darker tonality with some tracks, but the detail is decent and the resolution doesn’t give a whole lot to complain about. The MJ5 won’t win any awards for bass control as notes are on the thick side and there is a bit of bass bleed but on the whole the big bass is rather pleasant in a club-reverb sort of way.

The midrange is in very good balance with the low end – noticeably less recessed than with the Sony MDR-V6 and about on-par with the HD25. The moderate bass emphasis of the MJ5 does color the mids somewhat – the V6 and HD25 both sound more neutral in tone – but, bass bleed aside, the mids are quite decent in quality. Clarity and detail are not stellar next to higher-end studio-oriented sets but vocals are strong and the mids have a bit of a warm and rich character to them. Those who are willing to sacrifice a bit of crispness for a more full-bodied sound will likely enjoy the midrange of the MJ5. The treble is more noteworthy – the MJ5 may just be the most sparkle-heavy headphone I’ve heard in recent memory. There is a lot of treble emphasis, mostly coming in quite high (above 6k or so). If the MDR-V6 has ‘hyped-up’ treble, the MJ5 is a treble monster, but not in a bad way. Since its peaks are higher up on the response curve than the Sonys’, the MJ5 manages to skirt sibilance pretty well. Yes, there will be sibilance with some tracks but I felt that at least some of what I was hearing was almost subconscious, with my ears telling me that there should be a good amount of sibilance with that amount of treble sparkle and refusing to acknowledge the contrary. Treble boost aside, top-end extension is quite good and compares favorably to that of the HD25-1.

The presentation, too, is impressive without being particularly accurate. The soundstage is fairly wide and has decent depth and the MJ5 sounds surprisingly enveloping. There is a sense of space to the music, partly due to the thick pads, which position the drivers and inch or so away from the ear, and yet the MJ5 has very good ‘center stage’ feel when dealing with vocals. Though positioning is not pinpoint-accurate, the SE-MJ5 does have very good separation and layering and is helped along by the very decent dynamic range. Expectedly, the sculpted frequency response doesn’t yield the most natural timbre but on the whole the presentation of the MJ5 befits the sound signature. Now, I am not usually a fan of the ‘boosted bass + boosted treble = balance’ approach to audio but the MJ5 works quite well as a whole – it is fun and colored and makes no concessions whatsoever for accuracy. It’s far from technical perfection but then anyone buying a <$100 DJ can probably isn’t looking for absolute fidelity anyway.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $89.99, Street Price: $57) The Pioneer SE-MJ5 may yield to pricier full-size DJ cans in build quality, comfort, and isolation but for the asking price its sound is surprisingly enjoyable. The MJ5 is one of the rare breed of portable headphones that manages to maintain a ‘v-shaped’ balance without significantly recessed mids – a godsend for those in search of a fun-sounding headphone that maintains a semblance of sonic versatility. Those who abhor supraaural fitment or require a fully closed coupling for maximum isolation will still want to give the Pioneers a pass but at the current street price these headphones are an interesting alternative to the other bass-happy entry-level portables.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5 - 28,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 O
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4ft (1.2m) + 6.6ft (2m) extension, single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat folding, collapsible



(B24) Ultrasone HFI-15G: Ultrasone’s first attempt at a supraaural portable, still going strong after nearly seven years

Ultrasone HFI-15G.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): If there is one area where the HFI-15G is starting to show its age, it is definitely in the design and build. The construction is very simple and almost entirely plastic. The plastics feel a bit cheap but should stand the test of time. The cups have some freedom of motion and headband length can be adjusted but other than that there are no moving parts. The cups are closer in size to those of Grado headphones than the Sennheiser PX models and the foam donut pads are covered in cloth. The single-sided cord is thick and flexible and terminates in a beefy 3.5mm I-plug.

Comfort (9.5/10): The HFI-15G is a light and loosely-clamping supraaural headphone with plentiful padding on the cups and headband. The only downside is the cloth covering the pads, which can be quite itchy at first.

Isolation (3/10): The open design lets plenty of outside noise in and leaks some sound out.

Sound (6.75/10): Having heard Ultrasone’s newer Zino portable as well as some of the higher-end models, I expected the HFI-15G to be slightly v-shaped in sound signature and thus differentiate itself from the open supraaural headphones made by Grado and Sennheiser. However, the HFI-15G really isn’t all that different from Sennheiser’s PX100 with its bass-heavy, smooth, and slightly laid-back sound. There is a moderate mid-bass hump and slight subbass roll-off. The bass has a good amount of kick but generally sounds a touch soft and a little boomy. There is a thickness of note to the HFI-15G that reduces texture slightly compared to the Sennheiser PX100-II and AKG Q460 I’ve been using lately. Driver speed is also not quite as good as with the Zino or other mid-range portables, though it does improve with amping.

The mids of the HFI-15G are warmed up slightly by the mid-bass hump and just a bit recessed compared to the bass. Resolution is quite good but mid-range clarity is a little poorer than with the Maxell DHP-II and more neutral portables like the Sennheiser PX200-II and ATH-SQ5. Detail levels are good as well but the HFI-15G is rather passive in conveying detail even next to the similarly-smooth Sennheiser PX100-II. As with the PX100, vocals come across with smoothness and authority but lack the edge that brighter, crisper headphones tend to have. Harshness and sibilance are nonexistent and the treble is recessed even more than the midrange. The top end of the HFI-15G is quite laid-back and relaxed. It’s not as crisp and clean as the treble of the more analytical PX200-II and ATH-SQ5 and even the PX100-II sounds livelier on the whole despite having a similar overall balance. Expectedly, the tone of the Ultrasones is slightly dark even next to the Sennheisers – not unpleasantly so, but definitely noticeable.

The presentation of the Ultrasones actually improves slightly on that of the PX100-II. The headphones are similarly spacious and open-sounding but whereas the PX100-II always puts distance between the listener and the music, the HFI-15G seems to be more versatile in terms of layering and positioning, portraying both distance and intimacy with enthusiasm. The bass of the 15G doesn’t have the tendency to get ‘smeared’ over the sonic stage and only improves with amping. On that note, the HFI-15G actually really likes extra power – speed, detail, balance, and control all improve when the Ultrasones are plugged into a dedicated amp, even a small one such as my mini3. The inefficiency of the headphones could be blamed on the age of the design but it is just as likely that the 7-year-old cans were simply not designed for modern portable sources.

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $109.00, Street Price: $73) The Ultrasone HFI-15G remains a competent all-around performer despite its age and simplistic design. Light and comfortable, the HFI-15G is comfortable for long listening sessions, which are made all the more pleasant by the smooth and relaxing sound signature. For use in public I would still recommend a closed headphone but for those in search of an open-back supraaural with a comfortable fit and competent sound, the HFI-15G is a very worthy competitor for the venerable Sennheiser PX100-II.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 O
Sensitivity: 96 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.28ft (1m) + 6.56ft (2m) extension, single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

(B25) Sennheiser PX100-II: Second revision of Sennheiser’s iconic ultraportable

Sennheiser PX100-II.jpg

Build Quality (7.5/10): The design and functionality of the PX100-II borrows heavily from the older PX100 but undergoes improvement in several key areas. First and foremost are the plastics, which are now thicker and beefier all around. The metal headband, too has, been widened and strengthened compared to the first-gen PX100. The foam pads are a carryover from the older headphone but the mk II model brings with it a slightly thicker and significantly more convenient single-sided cord. A soft carrying pouch is included with the PX100-II in place of the hard plastic case that came with the PX100.

Comfort (9.5/10): The beefier PX100-II is slightly heavier than the featherweight PX100 and the clamping force is a touch greater. Still, the cups have good freedom of motion and apply pressure evenly on the ear. The headband padding is minimal but still easily gets the job done – all these years later the PX design still passes the comfort test with flying colors.

Isolation (3/10): The open design lets plenty of outside noise in and leaks some sound out.

Sound (6.75/10): While the second revision of the closed-back PX200 model makes huge performance leaps over its predecessor, the PX100-II stays conservatively close to the sound signature of the PX100. In a way, the decision is understandable – for a budget-level open portable, the PX100 was almost universally praised and Sennheiser had much to lose by straying off the beaten path. It should come as no surprise, then, that the PX100-II is a midbass-heavy headphone with all of the warmth and darkness usually associated with the PX100. The mid-bass emphasis of the PX100-II seems to be a hair greater than that of the PX100 but other than that the bass is very similar – smooth, thick, powerful. Bass control is quite good next to my aging KSC75 but of course not as impressive as that of the flatter and leaner-sounding PX200-II.

The mids of the PX100-II are similar to those of the PX100 – thick and smooth but still detailed and articulate. Next to the bass, the midrange and treble are both slightly recessed – the more aggressive Meelec HT-21 really makes the PX100-II sound a bit veiled and smoothed-over. Still, midrange detail and clarity are nothing to complain about for a headphone as smooth as the PX100-II. If anything, the PX100-II seems to take an extra bit of emphasis off its lower treble to appear even more inoffensive for prolonged listening than my old PX100 – quite unnecessary in my opinion, but then I can tolerate the far-brighter HT-21 just fine. The treble itself is a bit laid-back and fairly well-extended. It’s not as clean and crisp as that of the similarly-priced ATH-SQ5 but still quite impressive for a bass-heavy ultraportable.

The presentation of the PX100 is again similar to the PX100-II – typical Sennheiser in placing the listener at a distance from the action but otherwise very decent for an entry-level portable headphone. Positioning is not spectacular and the slight thickness makes the bass a bit omnipresent but the soundstage is broad and manages to have convincing depth. The open nature of the PX100-II also prevents the reverb and cupped-in feel of many entry-level closed portables, not that the current prices justify calling the PX100-II ‘entry-level’. Drivability is good as well – I don’t think the PX100-II is quite as efficient as the current-gen PX200 but it handily beats the new PX90 as well as the slightly more expensive Ultrasone HFI-15G. Portable players have no trouble driving it to volumes above my tolerance limit, though amping does have an effect very similar to the old PX100, tightening the bass and improving the transient response of the drivers.

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $69.95, Street Price: $60) From the very first listen, it is clear that Sennheiser didn’t risk messing with the established PX-series formula when updating the PX100 – while slightly sturdier in build, the headphones are otherwise remarkably similar to the original sub-$50 heavyweight. Far more so than the PX200-II, the sound of the PX100-II follows very closely in the steps of its predecessor, which brings us to the PX100-II’s main problem - the price. The price point of the PX100-II is nearly double what the PX100 was selling at for the last few years of its existence, which puts it in the more competitive $50-100 market segment. More than that, the new price gives a pretty significant value-for-money advantage to the PX100’s arch-rival, the Koss PortaPro. Is the PX100-II worth the $60 it’s selling at now? If portability is a factor – yes. However, it just isn’t the bang-per-buck champion it once was when the price is nudging the Beyerdynamic DT235 and Ultrasone HFI-450 and being undercut significantly by the PortaPro, Meelec’s HT-21, and Sennheiser’s own PX90.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15-27,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(B26) Beyerdynamic DTX 300 p: mid-range closed ultraportable from Beyerdynamic competing against the likes of the Sennheiser PX200-II and Soundmagic P20.

Beyerdynamic DTX 300 p.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): The construction of the DTX 300 p is a lightweight affair of metal and plastic. The brushed stainless steel headband feels robust and the hinges click precisely into place. The plastics are sturdier than they look but the possibility of cracking always exists if these are dropped. The rotating hinges at the bottom of the headband, which allow the cups to be folded upward, are very reminiscent of the cheaper Soundmagic portables. The cups themselves have a glossy plastic finish accented by a matte metal ring around the outside. The cable, complete with a well-relieved y-split and L-plug, is reminiscent of those found on the Beyer IEMs and similar in thickness to the Sennheiser PX-series cords. Like the Soundmagic headphone with the same folding mechanism, the cups do not feature any real strain relief as it would get in the way when the headphones are collapsed. A canvas travel carrying case offering some protection is included.

Comfort (7.5/10): The DTX 300 p is extremely lightweight and generally remains as comfortable as any of the other small supraaurals for prolonged listening. The headband is not padded but two rubber bits are glued on the underside to prevent it sliding off, a-la Sennheiser PX90. The cups don’t have any freedom of motion about the horizontal axis, which could be an issue for some.

Isolation (6/10): While fully closed, the DTX 300 p is too small to provide serious isolation. Leakage is expectedly low, however, and they are definitely usable out in public. Just don’t expect to enjoy them on a plane.

Sound (6.75/10): I’ve previously reviewed the Beyerdynamic DT235 – a somber-looking and slightly unwieldy semi-portable circumaural that remains one of my favorite $60 sets on the market when it comes to sound quality. The new DTX 300 p, however, is targeting the closed ultraportable segment, thus far dominated by pricier entries from Sennheiser and AKG. Truth be told, the sound quality of the DTX 300 p is quite competitive in the context of its slightly mid-centric signature. The bass is punchy and controlled but a bit soft in nature, making notes come out slightly ‘rounded’ compared to the DT235. It rolls off gently (as does the top end) but still has decent enough depth for most tracks. All in all, the DTX 300 p is not a bottom-heavy headphone, lagging just behind the MEElec HT-21 in bass quantity, but does relay the information present on the track quite accurately.

The midrange is where the little Beyers are most impressive – clear, focused, and quite enjoyable. For a slightly mid-centric headphone, the mids are appropriately detailed and surprise with their clarity and tone. Though not as bright or crisp as MEElec’s HT-21, the DTX 300 p is still slightly brighter than neutral and makes sets such as Sennheiser’s HD428 and Pioneer’s SE-MJ71 sound dark in comparison, just as the HT-21 does. Smoothness is very good and the headphones are never overly aggressive. At the same time, the midrange can hardly be called lush or full-bodied. Those who prefer a thicker, weightier note may be disappointed but I find the clarity to be a worthy tradeoff. The treble transition is smooth and the top end is very slightly laid-back compared to the midrange.

Treble presentation is polite and refined, with no harshness or sibilance to be found. Compared to the Sennheiser PX200-II, the DTX 300 p is smoother and slightly less sparkly. The PX200-II also fares a bit better when it comes to top-end extension, though the DTX 300 p is no slouch. Like the low end, the treble rolls off gently instead of fading out immediately but direct comparisons with the (far pricier) Senn HD25 make the dip fairly obvious. The presentation of the little Beyerdynamics is fairly typical of a bright-sounding portable headphone – airy and spacious, but not particularly enveloping. Soundstage depth and height, expectedly, lag behind the width. Layering and separation are quite good but the soundstage is not three-dimensional enough to provide imaging more convincing than that of the average entry-level portable. Business as usual on the whole, then - not even Beyer can break out of the form factor's constraints.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $59.00; Street Price: $59) Beyerdynamic’s answer to higher-priced ultraportables from AKG and Sennheiser, the DTX 300 p is a competent performer with a surprisingly reasonable price tag. Endowed with impressive clarity and a polite, slightly mid-centric sound signature, the DTX 300 p makes for an all-around pleasant listen. It really is amazing how clear the mids are next to a bass-biased set such as the Sony MDR-770LP or Pioneer SE-MJ71. Bass lovers need not apply and those with larger heads may not appreciate the supraaural fit but for everyone else the DTX 300 p may just be worth the asking price.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 25-18,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

(B27) Superlux HD668B: Entry-level studio monitor from Taiwanese OEM Superlux

Superlux HD668B.jpg

Build Quality (7.5/10): Styled after AKG’s classic K240-series monitors, the HD668B features a simple-yet-functional construction of black plastic and vinyl. The cushioned split-headband design is reminiscent of higher-end Audio-Technica and Philips headphones and eliminates the need for a dedicated headband length adjustment. The vinyl used on all of the padding isn’t of particularly good quality but it gets the job done, as do the plastics used throughout the structure. The HD668B scores bonus points for the breakaway cable a-la Philips SHO9560, with a male plug positioned an inch or so down the cord. Two lengths of cable – a 1m portable cord and a straight 3m studio cable – are included. Additionally, any 3.5mm extension cable can be used in their place.

Comfort (8/10): The inner pad diameter of the Superlux is quite large and they are fully circumaural. Clamping force is moderate and the headphones are very light. The cups are a bit too shallow to compete with my AKG K601/K701 when it comes to wearing comfort but the pads can be stuffed to alleviate the issue. The vinyl used on the head- and earpads is thick and smooth, and tends to invoke sweat more easily than the padding of most DJ cans.

Isolation (6.5/10): Though the HD668B is marketed as a semi-open headphone, it provides very decent isolation and leaks surprisingly little. At reasonable volumes, these are usable even a library.

Sound (8.25/10): Putting aside all criticisms of the HD668’s derivative styling and consumer-class plastic build, what’s left is the sound quality. The drivers Superlux crammed into the 668B are very, very impressive and no sub-$80 headphone I’ve heard before sounds quite this good. The general signature is balanced, crisp, and neutral in tone. The bass not at all exaggerated, instead appearing tight, quick, and accurate. Technically, they extend quite low but bass notes really thin out below 50Hz and the typical bass ‘rumble’ present in many consumer-class headphones is just not there. Those in search of bass that is deep, warm, and/or full-bodied probably won’t be satisfied with the HD668B but if control is the order of the day, the Superluxes perform exceedingly well. Bass texture and detail are also quite good – the Senn HD25-II performs just a little better when it comes to portraying subtle nuances between low notes, but then it is nearly four times the price.

Expectedly, bass bleed is nonexistent and the mids are clear, crisp, and detailed. The clarity of the 668B puts nearly all of the similarly-priced headphones I’ve heard to shame. In terms of balance, the midrange is a touch laid-back compared to something like the HD25, but then the Superluxes are more spacious in general. Like the bass, the midrange is just a touch on the thin side of things and lacks the refinement of my higher-end AKG K601/K701 monitors. However, it is more of a compliment to the HD668B that its overall sound quality is good enough to warrant direct comparisons to the well-established and impossibly refined offerings from AKG. Again, those looking for warmth or lushness probably won’t like the HD668B but as a headphone that tells it like it is, the Superlux is difficult to fault.

On the whole, the Superluxes have a bit of an analytical edge to them. The treble is moderately sparkly and tends to sound a touch cold. There is a very small amount of treble unevenness and a touch of grain that becomes quite apparent next to my AKG K701 or Ultrasone PRO650 but isn’t very noticeable in comparisons with most budget-class sets. Still, the HD668B is not for the treble-sensitive as it does tend to be quite shimmery. Cymbal crashes are energetic and authoritative, which in itself probably won’t be to everyone’s liking. If I had to pick another monitoring phone that renders high notes this way, it would be the Denon DN-HP700, which I like very much. The presentation of the HD668B, on the other hand, is quite straightforward. It is wide-sounding and airy. Depth is lacking in comparison to the width but instrumental separation is quite good and the headphones tend to be fairly transparent. The HD668B doesn’t sound as wide-open as my AKG K601 and K701 do, partly because the dynamic range of the drivers isn’t as great, but again the fact that such comparisons are even possible speaks volumes for the overall sound quality of the Superlux. Expectedly, the 56 Ω impedance does mean that the Superlux likes a bit of power and is slightly less efficient on the whole than Sennheiser’s HD25-1, but it does still play reasonably well out of more powerful portables. The slightly cool tonality of the headphones also causes them to synergize well with warmer sources for a thicker sound that is more ‘audiophile’ than ‘studio monitor’.

Value (9.5/10). (MSRP: est. $60; Street Price: $50) The Superlux HD668B has been praised plenty as of late, and all I can do is just heap it on – for the asking price, the headphone is an incredible performer for those who put resolution and clarity above all else. If there’s anything questionable about these, it is their portability– while they don’t look as bulky as my AKG monitors, come with a portable-length cable, and play nice with battery-powered sources, they are still full-size cans that don’t fold and really aren’t built to be crammed in a bag. For portable use, the similarly-priced Beyer DT235s may be a better choice with a well-balanced sound signature. For use at home, the HD668Bs sits atop the competition.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10-30,000 Hz
Impedance: 56 Ω
Sensitivity: 98 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 9.84ft (3m), 3.28ft (1m), single-sided, detachable; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

Huge thanks to Shmulkey for the HD668B loan

 

 

 

(B28) Fischer Audio FA-004: Circumaural portable headphone from Fischer Audio

 

Fischer Audio FA-004.jpg

 

Build Quality (8/10): The structure of the FA-004 is made of a combination of matte plastics and metal, with pleather padding used on the headband and earcups. Two color schemes are available – a fairly common black-and-silver design and a more unusual coffee brown coloration. Aside from the headband length adjustment, there are no moving parts – always a plus when it comes to predicting the longevity of a headphone. The cable is thicker than average and available in both straight and coiled configurations, with the straight cable standard on the brown FA-004 and the coiled cable used on the black-and-silver one. The coiled cord is one of the shortest and lightest I’ve ever encountered – probably the only such cable I’ve used that even comes close to being ‘portable’.

 

Comfort (7/10): The structure of the FA-004 is slightly atypical in that the cups have no adjustment about the horizontal axis. The soft pads probably distribute force more evenly for those with larger heads but for me the pads of the FA-004 always clamp most strongly at the bottom. Needless to say, sets that allow the cups to tilt correctly, - sets such as the Maxell DHP-II and Sennheiser HD428 - are more comfortable for long-term listening.

 

Isolation (6.5/10): The FA-004 is a closed headphone and would probably isolate better than it does if the cups were allowed to seal fully with my ears. As it stands, the isolation of the FA-004 is no greater than that of Sennheiser’s loosely-clamping HD428.

 

Sound (7.5/10): The sound of the FA-004 is lively and engaging. The bass goes deeper than that of the Koss UR55 but the FA-004 still has a slight mid-bass lift and mild low end roll-off. Compared to the UR55 and the more analytical-sounding Sennheiser HD428, the FA-004 tends to sound softer and fuller, though not to the same extent as the Maxell DHP-II. Bass impact and power are quite good, though the punch is not quite as quick and immediate as that of the Koss. Personally, I find the more laid-back low end of the FA-004 a bit more natural and it certainly falls well in line with expectations for a fun-sounding set such as the FA-004.

 

The midrange of the FA-004 is slightly forward compared to that of the HD428 but not as aggressive as that of the UR55. Clarity is better than that of the Koss set but still falls very slightly short of the leaner-sounding Sennheisers. Despite the FA-004 having the fuller, thicker note presentation, overall detail and texture are good. The emphasized low end imparts a pleasant warmth on the sound and the midrange is lush and sweet. The smoothness is impressive, too, but doesn’t prevent the FA-004 from sounding lively. It is not a neutral-sounding headphone but the coloration is vivid and enjoyable.

 

The treble of the FA-004 is the least unique part of the sound signature. It is bright and sparkly but neither as prominent nor as detailed as that of my other sets. The HD428, for example, is both more nuanced and more extended up top. On the upside, the FA-004 is smoother than the UR55 and the treble is rarely distracting or overbearing. The presentation is airy, not unlike that of the HD428, and the headphones sound spacious and three-dimensional. Soundstage width is fairly average but the depth and layering put the somewhat flat-sounding HD428 to shame. The front-to-rear and top-to-bottom soundstaging are quite decent for a portable headphone and really help with immersion. The imaging appears to be quite good as well – the positioning is by no means pinpoint-accurate but the headphones leave enough space around each sonic cue to sound convincing.

 

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $67.49; Street Price: $68) Fischer Audio headphones and IEMs have become fairly common recommendations around head-fi in the past year due in no small part to the great value for money offered by most models. The FA-004 is no exception, competing very well with the majority of similarly-priced portables. The sound put out by the headphones is detailed and smooth, with a slight mid-bass boost, bright treble, and warm mids. Clearly, the FA-004 was designed as a fun and easy-going consumer can and not a studio monitor, and it serves the purpose well. My only complaint is with the structure, which lacks adjustability and does not conform well to smaller heads, resulting in poorer isolation and long-term comfort than would otherwise be possible.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz

Impedance: 32 Ω

Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m) coiled or straight, single-sided; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

Huge thanks to Jackquelegs for the FA-004 loan!


 

 

(B29) Soundmagic P30: Soundmagic’s mid-range follow-up to the entry-level P10 and P20 models

Soundmagic P30.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): After experimenting with unconventional folding mechanisms in the lower-end P10 and P20 models, Soundmagic have backtracked a bit and used a more common DJ-style form factor for the P30. The good news is that it works – the structure feels solid, the hinges are smooth, and the plastics are well-molded. The headband adjustment mechanism is notched and the metal surfaces of the earcups give the headphones some heft. The single-sided cord is rubberized and a touch thinner than the cable on MEElec’s HT-21. It is terminated with a slim L-plug similar to those found on Soundmagic’s PL50 and PL21 IEMs as well as newer Beyerdynamic models. Padding is very soft and sufficient in quantity all around. An (unfortunate) testament to the sealing ability of the earpads is the mild driver flex that can be coaxed from the P30.

Comfort (8.5/10): The headband and earcups of the P30 utilize very soft synthetic leather pads and the multi-axis folding structure of the headphones makes the fit highly adjustable. The pads, sealing as well as they do, can get slightly warm after a few hours but on the whole wearing comfort is excellent.

Isolation (7.5/10): Very impressive for a small supraaural headphone, no doubt helped along by the extremely soft pads and compliant fitting mechanism

Sound (6.75/10): The priciest portable headphone put out by Soundmagic to date, the P30 offers up a generally inoffensive sound signature with slightly laid-back treble and a bit of added punch. The low end is controlled but impactful. Consumer-friendly levels of bass emphasis a-la Klipsch Image One are missing but the bass of the P30 is still significantly fuller and more powerful than with the MEElectronics HT-21 and Beyerdynamic DTX 300 p. The overall signature is warmer and smoother and the note presentation is softer and rounder with the P30, foregoing the lean and crisp sound of the Beyers and MEElecs. The midrange is warm and pleasant. It is balanced well with the low end but sounds a touch distant next to the mid-forward HT-21 and DTX 300 p. Detail and texturing are quite good but the P30 lacks a bit of midrange clarity and crispness. Part of the issue may be the relatively power-hungry nature of the headphones – they really do come alive at moderate-to-high volumes, becoming more balanced and dynamic.

The top end is slightly laid-back and quite inoffensive. Neither sibilance nor harshness is an issue but the P30 still offers up better treble presence and a slightly airier sound than the Marshall Major. Still, its top end is no match for the bright and prominent treble of Sennheiser’s HD428 and there is a bit of extension missing at the upper limit. On the upside, the treble is smooth and polite all the way up and despite the warmer tone of the headphones, there is enough presence for the signature to sound reasonably balanced overall. The presentation, too, is spacious and well-measured. The P30 conveys distance quite a bit better than the Marshall Major but has an inner limit to its soundstage. On-ear portables in general don’t always give a very good on-center feel and the P30 is no exception to that rule. Overall, the presentation and signature work well together, providing a pleasant, non-fatiguing listening experience.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $74.99, Street Price: N/A) The P30 commands a moderate price premium over Soundmagic’s older models but does so for a reason – it is built better, more isolating, more comfortable, and significantly better-sounding than either the P10 or P20. Minor driver flex aside, the P30 feels more like a higher-end portable product from a ‘premium’ brand and is tuned quite well for use outside with its slight bass emphasis, non-fatiguing treble, and thicker note presentation. The form factor has no real usability flaws, either, making the P30 one of the better small, on-ear portable sets I’ve come across.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-22,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 108 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(B30) Sennheiser HD428: Sennheiser’s mid-range portable circumaural reported to sound very similar to the higher-end HD448

 

Sennheiser HD428.jpg

 

Build Quality (6.5/10): The HD428 is a fully circumaural headphone designed to be light and versatile. It does not fold or collapse and most of the structure is made from slightly cheap-feeling plastics. The pleather covering the pads is very thin and develops cracks with time. The thin and rubbery single-sided cord is also disappointing but, at the very least, has better strain relief than the HD2*8-series cabling.

 

Comfort (9/10): The inner pad diameter of the HD428 is quite large and the headphones clamp very loosely. The pads aren’t as soft as those of the similarly-priced Philips SHO9560 or Maxell DHP-II but are not uncomfortable and stay cool longer than tighter-fitting circumaurals.

 

Isolation (7/10): The loose clamp and harder-than-average pads of the HD428 limit isolation somewhat but it is still mostly sufficient for portable use. Leakage is low.

 

Sound (7.25/10): While Sennheiser is often said to have a warm and laid-back house sound, the signature is definitely not consistent across the more budget-oriented models in the lineup. The HD428 clearly pursues a more neutral and accurate sound than similarly-priced sets from the more portable PX- and HD2- lines. The biggest problem with the headphone is mediocre sub-bass extension. The headphones aren’t lacking notably in bass response and have enough bass overall to provide moderate impact and decent bass body; however, depth and rumble are seriously understated next to the similarly-priced Maxell DHP-II and Sennheiser’s own PX100-II. Other than that, the low end of the HD428 is clean, punchy, and non-intrusive. It lacks just a bit of control and sounds very slightly boomy compared to the tight-and-fast PX200-II but still has a leg up in accuracy on most of the competition.

 

The midrange is neutral in tone and strikes a very good balance of smoothness, detail, and clarity. The HD428 lacks a bit of the lush softness that makes the mids of the Maxell DHP-II so pleasant, sounding leaner and more accurate, albeit slightly grainier. It has better clarity than just about anything else in the price bracket and impresses consistently with its overall resolution. The balance of the headphone is also very good although there is some merit in calling the sound mid-centric. The smoothness is retained up into the treble, which is just a tad laid-back compared to the midrange. Treble clarity and detail are excellent and there is plenty of sparkle and crispness. While treble quantity is diminished slightly compared to the PX200-II and ATH-SQ5, the sound is still airy and open. Top-end extension is good as well and the presentation is wide and very well-separated. Though soundstage depth is only average and the headphones tend to distance the listener from the music, for a $50 headphone the presentation is surprisingly uncongested and convincing. Interestingly, the HD428 does improve a little with amplification, especially when it comes to bass control; however, as usual, I cannot recommend buying a dedicated amp for a mid-range portable headphone. 

 

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $99.95, Street Price: $50) While other similarly-priced, high value-for-money sets such as the Philips SHO9560 are functionality powerhouses with average sound quality, Sennheiser’s HD428 has different priorities. Neutral, extremely clear, reasonably balanced, and surprisingly accurate, the HD428 is a very good mid-range headphone that acts to extend Sennheiser’s already-formidable presence in the price tier. It is also lightweight, comfortable, and moderately isolating - enough so to be used as an everyday go-to set for those who don’t mind its size and mediocre sub-bass presence. Above all, the HD428 offers a reasonably-priced alternative to the DJ-and studio-oriented circumaurals currently popular among those seeking a full-size-come-portable solution.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 18-22,000 Hz

Impedance: 32 Ω

Sensitivity: 110 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 4.27ft (1.3m), single-sided; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

(B31) Urbanears Plattan: mid-range portable headphone from Stockholm-based fashion-forward manufacturer UrbanEars

 
UrbanEars Plattan.jpg
 
Build Quality (7/10): Available in a variety of striking colors, the Plattan boasts a simple and yet functional structure of matte plastics, cloth, and metal. The wide padded headband is covered in a mesh material and matches well with the single-sided nylon-sheathed cable. The plastic cups and hinges show some molding seams but nothing I can’t live with for the price. The cups are accented with a metal ring around the outside and the entire structure can look quite good, depending on the color (more than a dozen monochromatic color schemes are available). Interesting features include an inline microphone and single-button remote as well as a pass-through 3.5mm jack on the right earcup, which allows a single source to be shared between friends without a dedicated splitter. 
 
Comfort (5.5/10): While the wide headband of the headphones is nice and plush, the cups fold inward but do not rotate. There is little flex in the structure to boot, meaning that the cups pretty much stay parallel to each other no matter what. The vinyl donut pads aren’t particularly stiff but the Plattan still gets very uncomfortable after a while, exerting lots of pressure on the wearer’s ears. With a bit more flex to the structure, the design could work, but as it stands the Plattan just won’t remain comfortable very long for most users.
 
Isolation (7/10): The tight clamping force and vinyl pads do have the potential for very good isolation but the lack of flexibility in the fitting mechanism makes it difficult to get a solid seal. Noise leakage is respectably low.
 
Sound (5.75/10): The sound of the Plattan is decidedly mainstream, which made picking the competition fairly straightforward. The MDR-770LP and MDR-PQ2 from Sony as well as the Pioineer SE-MJ71 all follow a similarly bass-heavy approach and compete well with the Urbanears. To be fair to the Plattan, it is not a bass monster - the bass falls into the realm of ‘enhanced’, but stops short of ‘overblown’. The bass of the Pioneers is a little deeper and definitely more forward and dominant overall while the Plattan is quicker and a little tighter. The Plattan also has better extension and control than the other mainstream sets, though it still isn’t anywhere near as tight or detailed as the MEElec HT-21 or Beyerdynamic DTX 300 p.
 
The midrange of the Plattan is warm and slightly forward. In comparison, the mids of the Sony MDR-770LP are more prominent and those of the Pioneer SE-MJ71 – more recessed. Clarity is similar between the Plattan and MDR-PQ2, beating out the 770LP and SE-MJ71 but not the MEElec HT-21 or Beyer DTX 300 p. The Plattan is guilty of a fuller overall sound and slight thickness of note but not nearly to the same degree as the Sony sets. It lacks a bit of mid-range clarity compared to more analytical portables but doesn’t quite overstep into ‘muddy’ as the 770LP does. The treble transition is smooth and the top end is very laid-back. The soft treble does make the Plattan a bit less balanced overall than most of its competitors but at the very least works to avoid harshness and sibilance. Treble sparkle is pretty much nonexistent and top-end extension is mediocre at best – the roll-off is gradual but starts early and adds up quickly.
 
Presentation-wise, the Plattan is again adequate but not outstanding. It does have a more spacious stage than the Pioneer SE-MJ71 but lacks the dynamics necessary to accurately portray distance. Instrument separation is average and layering is lacking slightly. Soundstage width is mediocre but the Plattan does perform better than the Sony MDR-770LP in terms of depth and height. Among similarly consumer-oriented headphones, its presentation is actually quite pleasant – not in-your-face like the SE-MJ71 but not boring or overly laid-back. It does well to avoid the cavernous soundstage feel and bass boom endemic to small closed headphones but won’t compete with similarly-priced open-back when it comes to overall realism.
 
Value (6/10). (MSRP: $60.00, Street Price: $59) Underneath the flashy colors and retro styling of the UrbanEars Plattan lies a reasonably competent mid-range headphone. For a fashion brand, UrbanEars has obviously paid some attention to the choice of drivers as well as the feature set of the unit – a collapsible structure, pass-through 3.5mm output, in-line mic & remote, and an included stereo adapter (for devices that do not support 4-pole connectors) all make the Plattan a very versatile listening device. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the fit – the structure lacks flexibility and the high clamping force is quite unforgiving. It is the comfort, or rather lack thereof, that makes the otherwise competent mainstream headphone a mediocre value.
 
Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 112 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided, with microphone & remote; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible
 
 
 
(B32) Marshall Major: on-ear portable from Marshall Headphones, produced by the same parent firm as UrbanEars and Coloud sets
 
Marshall Major.jpg
 
Build Quality (8/10): The Major shares its basic design with its lower-priced sibling, the UrbanEars Plattan, but sports better materials and superior molding quality all around. The square cups are definitely supraaural but the padding is far plusher than with the Urbanears and the grilles are protected by a nice-looking woven mesh. Same goes for the two-tone headband – it’s much thicker than with the Urbanears and offers a genuine leather look, as well as Jim Marshall’s signature on the underside. The nylon-covered cord of the Plattan is also gone, replaced by a lightweight coiled cable terminated with a rather beefy 3.5mm I-plug shelled in gold. 
 
Comfort (6.5/10): The cups and headband of the Major may be nice and plush but, as with the Plattan, there is simply not enough adjustability in the structure for long-term wearing comfort. The headband clamp is only moderate but the headphones still become uncomfortable after an hour or two.
 
Isolation (6.5/10): The Major is a little more loosely-clamping than its siblings but the soft vinyl pads seal a little better. It also leaks a little bit more compared to the Plattan and Colors.
 
Sound (6.75/10): Whether due to the pedigree of the brand or simply the higher price tag, there is no doubt that the Marshall Major performs far better than the Urbanears and Coloud models. The bass is punchy and reasonably controlled, though sub-bass extension isn’t great and most of the impact comes from the mild mid-bass lift. Compared to the Urbanears Plattan, the Major is much less boomy and much more detailed. It’s not the fastest headphone, nor is it the tightest or most resolving – direct comparisons to more analytical sets such as the MEElec HT-21 and Beyerdynamic DTX 300 p emphasize the Major’s tendency to ‘linger’ on bass notes – but it’s not offensively slow or bloated, especially considering the decidedly consumer-friendly bass quantity. 
 
Bass bleed is minimal and the Major is somewhat mid-forward overall. The mids, like the bass, are a little thick and creamy, but nothing too offensive – certainly clearer and more detailed than with the Major’s lesser brethren. At the very least the notes have good weight and presence, making the HT-21 sound a touch thin in comparison. Next to the midrange, the treble is slightly laid-back and just a touch strident at the bottom. Treble sparkle is mostly non-existent and the Major usually remains inoffensive without resorting to severe upper-end roll-off as the Urbanears Plattan does. Top end extension is moderate – not terribly lacking but nothing to brag about, either. 
 
The presentation of the Major is intimate but not congested. A lack of distinct upper treble emphasis means it doesn’t sound quite as airy as a MEElec HT-21 or Beyer DTX 300 p but compared to the UrbanEars Plattan and Coloud Colors, the Major is much more spacious and realistic. For a small closed headphone, it has a fairly ‘big’ sound, with decent front-to-rear and top-to-bottom soundstaging. However, it’s missing some of the width, layering, and positioning precision of competitors such as the Soundmagic P30. Unlike the lower-end UrbanEars Plattan, which is limited by poor dynamics, the Major seems to be let down by the mid-forward balance more than anything else. That said, the headphones are lively and generally make for a fun listen. The extremely high efficiency is also bound to appeal to the mainstream consumer – these things go brain-splittingly loud compared to something like the P30.
 
Value (7/10). (MSRP: $99.00, Street Price: $99) For a name as monumentally respected in the music world as Marshall, the Major disappoints, but only slightly. I really wish they had put a different badge on the headphone and tossed aside all pretentions to fidelity because it is quite enjoyable for a consumer-class listening device. The sound is warm and mid-forward, with an ample bottom end and slight roll off at the top and bottom – not hi-fi by any means, but very passable. In terms of design, however, the Marshall suffers from the same basic problem as the UrbanEars Plattan – lack of flexibility in the structure. Though the looser clamp and ample padding help, it really isn’t well-suited for long listening sessions. It’s too bad, really, as I quite like its simple construction, retro looks, and lightweight coiled cord.
 
Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 121 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided, coiled (up to 6’); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible
 
Big thanks to JamesMcProgger for the Marshall Major loan!
 
 
 

(B33) Philips O’Neill SHO9560 “The Stretch”: Rugged result of the collaboration between Philips and surf gear manufacturer O'Neill

Philips O'Neill SHO9560 The Stretch.jpg

Build Quality (9/10): As the flagship of Philips’ new O’Neill headphone line, the SHO9560 is claimed to be ruggedized to survive the dangers of extreme sports. The semi-transparent frame of the headphones is a single mold of TR55LX nylon – a stretchable polycarbonate-type material capable of deforming significantly before breaking. One would have to try very, very hard to damage the frame. There are no length adjustments on the headband but the inner cloth band stretches to accommodate larger noggins. The cups are attached to the frame with pegs and can move about the horizontal axis. They are matte on the outside and padded with soft pleather. The single-sided cable is interesting as well – it is not detachable at the cup but instead features a breakaway point about 2” down. It is nylon-sheathed, thick, and flexible. Best of all, it can be replaced with any 3.5mm extension cord should anything go wrong.

Comfort (9/10): The Stretch is a small circumaural headphone a-la Maxell DHP-II and JVC HA-S700. The pleather pads are soft and the cups are deep. The inner headband stretches easily to accommodate larger heads and yet keeps the headphones secure enough to be used during physical activity. The flexible nylon frame provides a supple fit with moderate clamp, remaining comfortable for hours.

Isolation (8/10): The Stretch is fully closed and isolates about as much as a small closed circumaural should. Leakage is not a problem and I was able to use them on my commute without issue

Sound (6.25/10): As a large electronics brand that hasn’t produced a high-end headphone in a number of years, Philips really has no ‘house sound’. Many of the brand’s lower-end models attempt to provide ground-quaking bass but fall short on the clarity and detail front. Not so with the SHO9560 – the bass is really quite tame for a mainstream youth-oriented headphone. There is a mild mid-bass hump as well as good punch and body but calling the SHO9560 a bassy headphone is – pardon the pun – a stretch. The bass is not the quickest, nor is it the tightest, sounding a little muddy at times, but it still beats the Monster Beats Solo in control and accuracy. The low end of the similarly-priced Maxell DHP-II is slightly deeper and fuller than that of the SHO9560 but colors the sound more.

Midrange clarity lags behind headphones such as the DHP-II and Sennheiser PX100-II but the overall tone is quite neutral and detail is decent. In terms of positioning the midrange of the SHO9560 is a tad recessed but the reasonable amount of bass emphasis makes this a non-issue. Midrange smoothness is good and the headphones remain pleasant all the way up. Treble extension is decent and there’s a bit of sparkle up top. The mild treble unevenness does not cause significant harshness or sibilance. Crispness and clarity aren’t quite as impressive as with the DHP-II but not really lacking for a modestly-priced set. The presentation is average for a set in the price range. The soundstage is medium-sized and layering is merely competent. The SHO9560 is not a spacious-sounding headphone like the open PX100-II and Ultrasone HFI-15G, but it is not nearly as congested as the Beats Solo, either.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $79.99, Street Price: $50) There is no doubt that the SHO9560 is a very versatile portable headphone – lightweight, durable, and user-friendly all around. Its biggest shortcoming is the slight blandness of the sound - next to the superb build quality and comfort, the sound leaves something to be desired. For those who put functionality first, the SHO9560 is easily worth the purchase, especially considering the reasonable street prices of late. If sound quality is priority number one, however, money is better spent on a Sennheiser HD428 or Beyerdynamic DT235.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 12-24,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), single-sided, detachable; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

(B34) Fischer Audio Oldskool ’70: retro-styled on-ear headphones from FA

Fischer Audio Oldskool 70.jpg

Build Quality (8/10): The construction of the Oldskool ’70 is extremely simple and should prove quite foolproof. The metal headband is thick and sturdy and the glossy plastics and machined aluminum earcups have a quality feel to them. The headband length adjuster is easy to operate and feels smooth and controlled. The small foam pads are extremely soft and the rubberized flat cable, which exits towards the rear of the earcups, is strong and tangle-resistant. A carrying pouch is included.

Comfort (8.5/10): The Oldskool ’70 is a classic on-ear headphone made comfortable by pivoting cups, soft pads, and the extremely light weight. Clamping force is moderate – certainly enough to keep them planted securely on the head – and may bother those with an aversion to supraaurals. Likewise, the metal headband is unpadded and may not work for those with sensitive heads.

Isolation (4/10): While the Oldskool ’70 is technically a closed-back headphone, it is tiny enough that the closed cups don’t make much of a difference. When positioned perfectly, they cut out a small amount of outside noise but still have a tendency to leak sound.

Sound (7/10): The sound of the Oldskool ’70 is punchy, dry, and aggressive, fitting in well with its retro personality. The bass is tight and quick, with mild roll-off at the bottom. The average depth puts the emphasis on mid- and upper bass, which have good weight and texture. The low end is far from thin-sounding a-la Beyerdynamic’s DTX 300 p but the note presentation doesn’t have a whole lot of body or fullness. The pricier Oldskool 33 1/3 has more rounded, filled-out bass notes, as does Beyerdynamic’s similarly-priced DT235.

The midrange is crisp and clear, with good detail and no veiling. It is slightly forward, getting more aggressive towards the top. As with the low end, the texture is good but the Oldskool ends up sounding dry and a bit grainy. Instruments are very well-defined and vocals are lively and energetic, helped along by the slightly emphasized top end. Even next to the impressive accuracy of the Beyerdynamic DT235 and Sennheiser HD428, the midrange of the Oldskool sounds impeccably clean and detailed.

The top end of the ’70 is on the bright side, fairly well-extended, detailed, and crisp. It’s not very forgiving of low bitrates and throws off the overall tonality of the headphones, causing them to sound colored, but impresses with its resolution. The Beyerdynamic DT235 sounds darker, smoother, and more laid-back at the top while the HD428 takes a middle ground with its neutral tone and treble that is crisp but not overly edgy. Both the DT235 and HD428 also have larger presentations – the small, supraaural Oldskool doesn’t really have much of a soundstage. Its forward presentation is set off by good instrument separation, though, and it doesn’t have a tendency to sound closed-in or congested.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $67.50; Street Price: N/A) A retro-themed on-ear headphone with contemporary performance, the Fischer Audio Oldskool ’70 is one of the more straightforward portables I’ve come across in a while. Those who don’t mind supraaurals will find a well-built, secure-fitting headphone with nearly nonexistent isolation and a simple, unassuming design. The dry, aggressive sound impresses with detail and clarity and the tuning is well-suited for the grime and grit of many 70s and 80s recordings. Being able to compete directly with the Grado SR60, Koss PortaPro, Sennheiser PX100-II, and a myriad of newer sets speaks volumes about the performance of the Oldskool ’70, though those who prefer a more conventional sound signature may want to look at Fischer’s similarly-priced FA-004 as well.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 35 Ω
Sensitivity: 112 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

(B35) Rock-It Sounds R-Shield: Essentially a set of earmuffs with drivers, the R-Shield delivers good sound on top of eerie isolation

 


Build Quality (8.5/10): Rock-It Sounds certainly placed durability and functionality (far) above aesthetics here - the R-Shield strongly resembles a set of earmuffs with its deep cups and thick vinyl pads. The structure is metal and seems nicely made but the construction is a little rough around the edges. Some of the metal bits are a sharp and the external cable routing is anything but sleek. The orange cable does contrast the matte black finish nicely but ‘stylish’ is still the last word that comes to mind with the R-Shield.

Comfort (7/10): The vinyl padding of the R-Shield is designed to block out external noise but the foam is soft and conforming all around. There is enough play in the joints of the headphone for a compliant fit. The only two complaints have to do with the headband, which is shorter than average and may not fill larger heads, and the nature of the sound-isolating padding, which is not breathable in the least and induces sweat very quickly when worn.

Isolation (10/10): Isolation was clearly a design goal of the R-Shield and the headphone succeeds in providing some of the best isolation on the market. Wearing the R-Shield provides an eerie sense of isolation from the outside world – a sensation very similar to wearing a set of industrial earmuffs, from which these draw inspiration.

Sound (7/10): The clear, well-defined sound of the R-Shield is just the sort of thing needed for use in noisy environments. Overall, the R-Shield’s sound signature leans slightly towards the bright side of neutral. The bass is punchy and crisp but doesn’t extend all the way down, causing the R-Shield to lack rumble and depth compared to the Monoprice 8323 and many similarly-priced sets. The Monoprice is much warmer, with more bass bleed and poorer clarity. The R-Shield, on the other hand has bass punch slightly above that of the Sennheiser HD428 and no bleed. The midrange is clear and strong. Vocals are prominent but not warmed-up as is often the case with mid-range portables. There is emphasis placed on the upper midrange and lower treble for a brighter sound but the energy is not excessive and the R-Shield is neither harsh nor sibilant. Top-end presence is better than with the darker, rolled-off Monoprice 8323 and comparable to the HD428, only more energetic.

Soundstaging is a little less straightforward – perhaps it is due to the noise-blocking properties of the cups that the R-Shield sounds quite forward and aggressive. There’s not much width or depth to the soundstage – width is poorer than with the Sennheiser HD428 and depth is comparable. Still, the presentation is surprisingly enjoyable. Stereo separation is good and the impressive definition prevents the R-Shield from sounding congested except during the busiest passages. The Monoprice 8323, for example, is a more serious offender in terms of soundstage versatility to my ears.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $69.99; Street Price: $70) The R-Shield is a purpose-built noise assassin, first and foremost providing isolation that is simply unmatched among small circumaural headphones. The build is solid and the sound is crisp and clear, with the only issues being mediocre bass extension and constrained presentation. Comfort is also good aside from the expected heat build-up. That said, while beauty surely is in the eye of the beholder, the R-Shield is just not something I can imagine seeing worn in public. For use in other high-noise environments - a machine shop, for example - it is excellent. 

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 110 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 5.24ft (1.6m), single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

 

(B36) Rock-It Sounds R-DJ

 

 

 

Brief: DJ-oriented portable headphone from Rock-It Sounds

Price: $75.99 (manufacturer’s page)

Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz | Impedance: 64 Ω | Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL/1mW
Form factor: over-the-ear | Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A
Cord: detachable, ~4-6 ft, coiled, I-plug, detachable

Build Quality (8/10): No complaints here – the R-DJ is plasticky on the outside but its construction is no worse than those of many higher-end DJ headphones. The plastics are rubberized and pleasant to the touch. The headband has a wide metal band running through it and metal plates decorate the earcups. The construction is a little tough to fold up but in terms of durability should last the course. The coiled cable is detachable, terminated with an locking connector at the headphone end and an I-plug on the other side. It’s a bit heavy but still very much usable both at home and while on the move.

Comfort (8.5/10): The R-DJ clamps pretty tightly but has thick pads and spacious cups to it’s comfortable to wear for long periods of time. The pleather pads feature handsome white stitching (a-la Skullcandy Mix Master) and the headband pad is amply soft. Those who are sensitive to clamping pressure might be better off with Rock-It Sounds’ similarly-priced R-Studio model but on the whole the R-DJ is very comfortable.

Isolation (8/10): The well-sealing pads and good clamping force put the R-DJ on par with other DJ headphones, such as the Ultrasone PRO450 and Numark PHX, in this regard.

Sound (7.25/10): The sound of the Rock-It Sounds R-DJ is not atypical of a DJ headphone – the headphone has strong bass, slightly less prominent mids, and good treble energy. It’s a slightly v-shaped signature, but an enjoyable one for sure. I preferred the R-DJ to Rock-It Sounds’ similarly-priced R-Studio model for its tighter bass – the R-Studio may be a little less v-shaped in signature but its bass is boomier compared to the R-DJ.

The midrange of the R-DJ is slightly laid back but not overly recessed. The bass is tight enough that bleed is not an issue and while it wasn’t as clear as the rather more thin-sounding Sennheiser HD428, on the whole I did not find the R-DJ to be lacking in clarity for the price.

The treble of the R-DJ has good energy. It’s a little prone to sibilance, but only when sibilance is present on the track. The pricier Creative Aurvana Live! 2 is admittedly a little smoother and more refined, especially at high volumes, but it’s not hugely better than the R-DJ. The Monoprice 8323, on the other hand, is a little too dark in comparison to the Rock-It Sounds set.

The presentation of the R-DJ is pretty wide – almost on par with the HD428 but with better depth, making the Sennheiser unit sound overly distant in comparison. It makes the Monoprice 8323 sound overly closed-in and congested. The R-DJ is not the most precise headphone, but for a sub-$100 enhanced-bass DJ set its imaging is not bad at all.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $75.99; Street Price: $76) The Rock-It Sounds R-DJ is my favorite out of the company’s latest releases, offering up a slightly v-shaped sound signature with ample bass. The sound is a little rough around the edges, but it has no major flaws and is easy to enjoy. The design, likewise, uses a lot of plastic but the R-DJ easily competes with pricier DJ cans in comfort, durability, and isolation. I even like the compact, easy-to-recycle packaging. Overall, an easy recommendation for a versatile DJ-style headphone.

 

 


 

 

Tier A ($100-400)



(A1) M-Audio Studiophile Q40: The Q40 is a full-size collapsible monitoring headphone from studio equipment manufacturer M-Audio. Prior to the Q40 all of M-Audio’s headphones were Ultimate Ears rebrands and were mostly made obscure by the lack of competitive pricing. However, the Q40 does not seem to have an OEM progenitor and is a whole different story.

 

Build Quality (9/10): Underneath the handsome black-and-grey plastic paneling of the Q40 is a tank-like steel construction. The well-padded steel headband and massive steel hinges really make the Q40 feel like it was built to last. The headband stretches to gargantuan lengths and has numbered notches for easy adjustment. The pleather pads are soft but the cups aren’t really deep enough for such shallow pads. The thick 9’ cable is detachable and utilizes threaded 3.5mm jacks at both ends. There are some reported long-term issues with the cable but replacement cords are available at a cost of about $10.

Comfort (6/10): The steel headband of the Q40s boasts quite a bit of clamping force. Despite being very pliable, it is also surprisingly resilient to permanent deformation. The padding on the headband is great but the ear cushions just aren’t quite thick enough for me. As a result my ears are constantly pushed against the grilles, resulting in pain. Beyerdynamic velour pads are better but not quite thick enough either. I ended up using the pads off of my JVC HA-RX700, which didn’t fit the Q40s perfectly but gave a great comfort boost (thickness difference illustrated here; stock pads on the right). Though I did not attempt this, a cost-effective way to improve the comfort would be to stuff an additional foam ring into the stock pads to boost their thickness and then sew them back up. With thicker pads the Q40 can provide hours of comfort.

Isolation (7/10): The perforated external grilles on the Q40s are purely decorative – the headphones are fully closed. The isolation is surprisingly modest for such a large headphone – noticeably lower than the smaller JVC and AKG portables. Still, they isolate more than most and leakage is negligible so they are well-suited for portable applications.

Sound (8/10): The most striking aspect of the Q40s’ sound is the bass - specifically the depth, power, and texture of the low end, which are all superb. The Q40s can really go deep when the track calls for it and the sub-bass is felt as much as it is heard. For my tastes the boosted mid- and upper bass on the Q40s is excessive but the rest of the sound signature is rather neutral and monitor-like. They remind me of a far more refined JVC HA-M750 on both counts. The midrange is lush and full but seems to have a slight dip at the lower end. The treble is never harsh or sibilant and is rolled off slightly off at the very top. The soundstage is slightly below average in width and lacks depth, resulting in a rather intimate sound. Instrumental separation is good and the Q40s do a good job of relating detail. They are not very forgiving of poor source material and the 64-ohm impedance means that while the Q40s are perfectly capable performers when driven by a portable source, they do benefit from some additional juice, which opens them up and gives them some more speed and control in the lower and middle registers.

Value (7/10): (MSRP: $179.95, Street Price: $120). The M-Audio Studophile Q40 is a very solid headphone designed for studio use but also quite functional as a portable set. This full-size, collapsible headphone features a rock-solid build, decent isolation and comfort, and a bass-heavy sound signature with subdued treble. The rest of the signature is balanced and accurate, making the Q40 sound somewhat like a less aggressive and much more refined JVC HA-M750. For the bass lover looking for headphones in this price range these should be at the top of the list.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:10-20,000 Hz
Impedance:64 Ω
Sensitivity:116 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:9.84ft (3m), single-sided, detachable; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Collapsible



(A2) AKG K181DJ: There is no doubt that the K181Dj is an improvement over the lower-end K81Dj. Whether it is $100 better, however, is a much harder question to answer.


Build Quality (9/10): The lower-tier K81 is already a well-built headphone but the K181 takes build quality one step further. The construction is brutish and features a metal inner structure and hard plastic outer shell. One downside is that the K181s don’t fold into quite as many configurations as the K81s - the bulkier joints and larger cups reduce the degrees of freedom allowed by the 3D-Axis mechanism. Still, they are plenty portable when folded and a velour carrying pouch is provided. The detachable stock cable is slightly shorter and significantly thicker than the K81 cable and connected via a 3-pin mini-XLR connector, same as AKG’s other detachable-cord headphones. If I had one worry it would be about the silver paint that’s used extensively on these and may chip over time as well as the plastics, which may start to crack if these are thrown about a lot.

Comfort (6.5/10): Again improving on the K81 formula, the K181 features a wider, slightly padded headband. The pads, though big enough to be circumaural, have an inner diameter identical to the K81 pads and thus remain supraaural, though they are quite thick and comfortable. The K181s also don’t clamp quite as hard as stock K81s but are about 2x heavier. The greatest improvement, though, is one that fixes my greatest criticism of the K81 – a longer headband. Though the K81 fits on my head just fine, there is no reserve left in the headband for those with larger noggins. The K181 fixes this with a truly monstrous headband length – they actually fit just fine *over* the fully-extended K81s.

Isolation (9.5/10): Again improving slightly on the K81s, the thicker pads of the K181 offer more isolation than those of their smaller sibling.

Sound (8/10): Head-to-head comparisons with the K81DJ are inevitable but I will try to be as general as I can. In a nutshell, the K181s alleviate a lot of the issues I had with the sound of the K81s but just don’t go quite far enough. They are more balanced and less dark than the K81s. The low end is still very powerful but the K181s do a better job of controlling it and it is even more extended than with the K81s. The bass also feels like its integrated better into the overall sound. Additionally, there is a bass toggle switch, but after playing with it for a bit I decided that it is better kept in the “low” position for fear of altering plate tectonics. The midrange is very clear and boasts a good amount of detail and very natural tonality. It seems slightly forward compared to the K81s but this is likely the result of the K181s’ better bass and treble control. The treble is equally natural and very smooth. Though it lacks the distinctive sparkle of the K81, there is not a hint of harshness or sibilance with the K181. Amplification has an effect on the K181s, but not so much that I would recommend getting an amp just for them. I have also been using them with a DHC Cryo K702 cable, which sounds brilliant with these. It really helps with the treble rolloff issue that these share with the K81s. Overall the K181s are still far from being flat, neutral monitoring phones but they can be quite fun, especially with the club-type music for which they were so obviously designed.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $249, Street Price: $150) The AKG K181DJ build on the brilliant versatility of the lower-end K81DJ, surpassing their smaller sibling in every area save for portability. However, in doing so they lose sight of what makes the K81 so good – the price tag. Despite the slight improvements in build, comfort, isolation, and sound, the K181s biggest problem is, and always will be, the K81. The K81DJ is less than half of the price of the K181 and about 90% of the headphone. If cost is not an issue and the slight performance improvements of the K181 seem like they are worth a premium then they are great headphones to be had. Otherwise, I have a tough time recommending them.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:5-30,000 Hz
Impedance:42 Ω
Sensitivity:120 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:5.9ft (1.8m), single-sided, detachable; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding, collapsible



(A3) Sennheiser HD25-1 II: – The HD25-1 has been my favorite (trans)portable headphone for quite a few months. I spend a few nights a week away from my home rig and the HD25 works wonders with my iBasso D10 and netbook. Hi-fi on the go has never been so rugged and simple. Best of all is their sonic versatility – though my backup portables, the AKG K181Dj, excel with certain genres and recordings, the Sennheisers perform more than adequately with anything I can throw at them.

sennheiserhd251mkii.jpg

Build Quality (10/10): When it comes to build quality, Sennheiser’s flagship portables can do no wrong. The structure of the HD25 is painfully elementary. They are neither flat-folding nor collapsible, with very simple rotating joints and removable metal hardware. The rough black plastic is resistant to cracks and scratches. A thick and sturdy steel cable, terminated in a beefy L-plug, completes the picture. The headphones are also very light and not likely to get damaged from falls. Lastly, every single part of the headphones is user-replaceable. From the detachable cabling to the headband padding to the cups and joints, the HD25 can be disassembled completely in just a few minutes.

Comfort (8/10): The HD25 is surprisingly light compared to headphones such as the AKG K181 and M-Audio Q40. The adjustable dual headband exerts very little pressure – the majority of the force is applied by the supraaural coupling. Though clamping force is fairly strong in the HD25, the structure does a great job of distributing it over the entire surface of the pads. The cups have a good range of motion despite lacking any joints whatsoever and conform very well to the shape of one’s head. Vinyl pads come installed on stock HD25s but some versions include the optional velour pads as well. Even if that isn’t the case, at $7+shipping the velour pads are a worthy investment, providing a comfort improvement at the expense of a tiny bit of isolation. Overall comfort falls just behind the likes of the impossibly light Senn PX100s and the circumaural CAL!.

Isolation (9.5/10): Though portable headphones can never isolate as well as the IEMs, the HD25 can compete with certain shallow-insertion in-ears. While the vinyl pads isolate just a bit more than the velour ones, the tradeoff is unlikely to be worth it for most users. Even with the velour pads the isolation crown of the HD25-1 can be usurped only the hard-clamping AKGs and only if you’re lucky enough to get the AKGs to seal properly.

Sound (9/10): Upon first hearing the HD25-1 I was absolutely convinced that I would be giving them a 10/10 in sound quality. Having owned them for a while, however, I can’t help but notice that for $200 headphones they are just slightly lacking here and there. But the fact that I am still using them as my primary portables is certainly telling of the fact that they are a competitive product. They are well-balanced with a slight reduction in midrange emphasis, have good clarity and detail, and are quite transparent when it comes to sources. The bass is tight and accurate. It’s hard-hitting in character and more punchy than powerful as opposed to something like the K181Dj or M-Audio Q40. It has impressive extension, though it won’t keep up with the M-Audios down to the lowest reaches. It is also well-textured and does not bleed into the midrange. For a portable headphone the quantity of bass is just right – a bit more than what one would expect from an analytical headphone but far from AKG K81/K181 quantity.

The mids are neutral, clear, and detailed. Articulation is very good and sounds are well-separated. However, the HD25 is lacking noticeably in both soundstage width and depth, at least when compared to most full-size headphones. Most of the other closed portables I own don’t exactly shine in soundstaging either but I can’t help but be disappointed that the smaller and cheaper PX200-II has a more spacious sound. Sheer size aside, soundstage positioning is fairly precise and instrumental separation is excellent on all but the densest tracks. Towards the upper midrange the HD25-1 struggles to stay smooth and as a result is very unforgiving of sibilant tracks. The high end is quite present and reasonably extended but comes off a bit edgy and clinical at times. The overall sound, though, is quite pleasant and works particularly well for genres not dependent on soundstage size for the full experience. All of my quibbles aside, the HD25 is as good for use on the go as any portable headphone I have heard.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $299.95; Street Price: $199) By far the most expensive headphone of the bunch, both in street price and MSRP, the HD25-1 is on another level in terms of balance and detail compared to all of the other featured portables. Compared, however, to full-size cans in the price range, as it sometimes is, the HD25 can come off as dull and rather compressed-sounding because of the narrow stage. The hard treble can also be a bit fatiguing for home use. But of course such comparisons are unfair precisely because I am not comfortable wearing my full-size cans outside while using the HD25 comes naturally. It is this versatility that makes the Sennheisers well-worth the $200 price tag and one of the easiest portable headphones to recommend.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:16-22,000 Hz
Impedance:70 Ω
 Sensitivity:120 dB/1V
Cord:5ft (1.5m), single-sided; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:N/A



(A4) Phiaton MS400: Finding that perfect combination of comfort, portability, isolation, and sound quaility has never been easy, especially in the $150-250 price range. Phiaton, an upmarket audio branch of Korean electronics firm Cresyn, attempts to find the perfect balance with the strikingly pretty MS400

 

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Build Quality (8/10): The build of the MS400 impresses right out of the box. Unlike the brutish Sennheiser HD25-1 and AKG K181DJ, the MS400 feels precision-built without being too delicate. The inner structure, including the rotating hinges, is metal. The cups feature carbon fiber panels under a clear polycarbonate shell. The headband is generously padded in luxurious red pleather all the way around. The surrounding bits are plastic, but even the plastic panels are pleasant to the touch (take heed, GM) and look like they could take some abuse. The thin and flexible cabling is perfect for portable use but probably won’t double as a trailer hitch (unlike the HD25-1 cord). The 3.5mm plug features a very simple rubber strain relief and looks positively wimpy next to the similarly-priced DJ phones. I certainly wouldn’t risk throwing the MS400 into my book bag like I do the HD25-1. Luckily, I don’t need to – Phiaton includes a surprisingly slim hard clamshell carrying case that the MS400 fit snugly into when folded.

Comfort (8/10): The MS400 is a circumaural headphone close in size to the JVC HA-S700 but the thicker pads mean that the Phiatons will likely be supraaural for those with larger ears. The cups are fairly shallow and do tend to bottom out. The resulting pressure put on the ears by the plastic grilles can get fatiguing after long listening sessions. On the upside, the padding used on the cups and headband of the MS400 is easily the softest I've encountered, beating out even JVC's memory foam-backed pads. The fit is highly adjustable due to the multi-axis folding mechanism and the medium clamping force does keep them comfortable for several hours. Like most pleather-padded circumaural headphones, the MS400 tend to invoke sweat after prolonged use but aren’t nearly as offensive in this respect as the Creative Aurvana Live! or JVC HA-M750.

Isolation (8/10): The MS400 isolate very well considering the comfort tradeoff. They won't quite keep up with the (comparatively) head-crushing K181s or the vast majority of IEMs but the isolation is more than good enough for daily use. I did not feel the need to raise the volume during my commute, though the tiniest details were occasionally obscured by intruding noise. Leakage is non-existent thanks to the soft pads and compliant fit.

Sound (8/10): For months now the renowned Sennheiser HD25-1 II have been my everyday portable headphones of choice. On paper the similarly-priced Sennheisers make the perfect step-off point for comparison with the MS400. In reality, however, the two couldn’t be more different in signature or presentation. It is no coincidence that Phiaton is eschewing the common trend of hi-fi manufacturers marketing mid-range headphones as ‘DJ’, ‘Studio’, or ‘Monitoring’ products - the MS400 are aimed squarely at consumers, and it shows.

Starting at the low end, the MS400 boast the sort of full and engaging sound that captivates the average music lover at first listen far more easily than my Sennheisers. The low end boasts decent extension and good definition, with a very substantial emphasis on mid- and upper bass. Sub-bass is not as strong as on the AKG K181DJ or M-Audio Q40 but the low end is filled out nicely, properly textured, and impactful enough to make my Sennheisers sound positively anemic in comparison. As is often the case with bass-happy cans such as these, the low end never sounds particularly fast or sprightly and isn’t the most controlled. Taking into account the quantity of bass to be contained, however, the MS400 do quite a good job. Mid-range bleed is minimal and the hard-hitting bass gives the mids some pleasantly warm undertones. The full and slightly forward midrange plays well in conjunction with the hefty low end, giving the Phiatons a certain thickness of note that is absent in the vast majority of DJ/Monitoring headphones commonly used as portables.

Moving upwards, there is a notable dip towards the upper midrange/lower treble. On one hand the sculpted frequency response means that sibilance is left completely out of the equation. On the other, musical elements such as the shimmering of cymbals are significantly less obvious with the MS400 than my HD25-1. Treble does roll off earlier than I would like but I hesitate to say that the Phiatons are missing information at the top. The amazingly smooth upper end is sure to appeal to those who find the HD25-1 grating and unnatural but those who are used to prominent and effortless treble may be left slightly disappointed – the Phiatons definitely use high frequencies as a complement rather than the focus of the presentation. On the upside, this means that the MS400 play nice with low bitrate mp3 tracks straight out of an mp3 player. The rated 32 Ω impedance and 98 db sensitivity also result in a headphone that benefits little from a dedicated amp and yet manages to cut hiss from poor sources very efficiently. Straight out of the HPO of my Tianyun Zero, hiss levels were nearly identical to the 70 Ω HD25-1 - non-existent at listening volumes and whisper-quiet at full blast.

In terms of presentation, the MS400 is an intimate-sounding headphone. Soundstage width is fairly average for a portable headphone – wider than the HD25-1 or a Grado, but not up there with the K181DJ or Philips SHP5400. Unlike the HD25-1, which has a narrow soundstage and manages to sound pretty distant at the same time, the sound of the MS400 envelops the listener very closely and extends outwards from there. The effect resulting from combining an intimate presentation with a bass-heavy sound signature is engaging and captivating. Can the MS400 be considered true audiophile portables? Probably not. But moving back to my HD25-1 I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the cold brightness, distant presentation, and slightly metallic highs of my beloved Sennheisers.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $249.99, Street Price: $180) The MS400 are pricy, no doubt about that, but like the HD25-1 their value rests not purely in the sound quality provided but rather in the total package. As such the MS400 are the most convenient and user-friendly headphones I’ve encountered north of $100. Build quality, isolation, and comfort are all far above average for a portable set. As an added bonus (or perhaps detriment), the contrasting red-and-black color scheme and earcups decked out in carbon fiber attract a lot of attention. I’ve worn dozens of different headphones to work in the past several years and none of them gathered as dense of a stream of interest, comments, and compliments as the Phiatons do. But of course even in a portable set sound quality should come first and the smooth and easy-going sound of the MS400 is very appealing in a portable. Like Ultrasone and AKG, Phiaton seems to understand that bass notes are the first to get drowned out on a busy city street, and the MS400 do a great job of compensating. Those in search of a more analytical signature should probably look elsewhere. For an involving, convenient, and strikingly beautiful audio experience on the go, however, the Phiatons come highly recommended.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response:15 – 22,000 Hz
Impedance:32 Ω
Sensitivity:98 dB SPL/1mW
Cord:3.9ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism:Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(A5) Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9A: Sitting near the top of the Audio-Technica’s style-focused Earsuit line of portable headphones, the wooden ESW9A is as unique in sound as it is in aesthetics

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Build Quality (8/10): I would like to start off by saying that the ATH-ESW9A is an absolutely gorgeous set of headphones and photographs really don’t do it justice. The construction of the set is surprisingly similar to that of the Phiaton MS400 with the exception of the extra headband hinges that make the MS400 collapsible. The headbands are of similar thickness and the plastics are of similar quality between the two portables. Both feature leather-wrapped metal headbands and plastic forks, though the ones on the Phiatons are just a tad beefier. On the other hand the point for best cable goes to the Audio-Technicas by a hair, with a slightly more flexible cord and sturdier connections used all around. While the MS400 is at least partially circumaural, the ESW9A is a supraaural headphone through and through, with bowl-shaped (a-la Grado) pads only slightly larger in diameter than those used by the HD25-1. One thing worth noting is that while the ESWA is not particularly fragile per se, the wooden cups inspire a definite tendency to be delicate with the headphones – something I don’t find myself doing with the polycarbonate-shelled Phiaton MS400 and definitely not with the tank-like HD25-1.

Comfort (8/10): The ESW9A features lambskin earpads only slightly larger in diameter than those used by the HD25-1. The stitched pads look very good and are extremely soft – soft enough to compete with the wonderful red pleather on my MS400s. The cups of the headphones are fully adjustable and clamping force is rather mild, allowing the ESW9A to remain comfortable for hours. Those who have a general dislike of supraaural phones may still want to give these pass, however.

Isolation (7.5/10): The lambskin earpads provide a surprisingly good coupling with the ear for a supraaural headphone, resulting in isolation that only just yields to that of the Phiaton MS400

Sound (8.5/10): The sound of the ATH-ESW9A generally falls between the warm-and-bassy Phiaton MS400 and the colder, brighter Sennheiser HD25-1. There is good sub-bass presence at the low end and the 42mm drivers move plenty of air. Impact is nearly on-par with the HD25 but the ESW9A somehow sounds less closed, less boomy when it comes to presenting bass. At the same time the low end of the ESW9A is slightly bloated. Despite the drivers being quite quick by nature, the ESW9A gives bass notes extended decay times, which results in greater overall bass presence and ‘rounder’ notes than with the HD25. Next to the midrange and treble, the bass is quite forward but not nearly as much so as that of the MS400, which boasts more impact, more texture, and much more weight at the low end. Hopefully that makes sense as I really think that it‘s important to distinguish between tactile and sonic bass. The MS400, of course, has more of both while between the ESW9 and HD25 the tactility is comparable but the ESW9 is still “bassier” in the conventional sense while the HD25 sounds tighter and cleaner, albeit more closed-in.

The midrange of the ESW9 is warmed up by the bass but still not nearly as warm as that of the MS400. It is smooth and lush, with good vocal presence and significantly more refinement than I remember getting from the ATH-ES7 or EM7. It is rather transparent and treads a fine line between being slightly recessed and slightly forward, depending on the track. The generally intimate MS400 is, of course, noticeably more forward in the midrange – not a bad thing by any means but just one more reason why no headphone can be all things to all people. The upper midrange is smooth and refined but carries a bit of added emphasis like so many of Audio-Technica’s other models. The treble is not as crisp, sparkly, or detailed as that of the HD25 but at the same time smoother and less hard-edged. It is certainly more present than with the MS400 but not necessarily of better quality. The clarity is still quite excellent and the ESW9 never sounds overly strident as the ES7 and EM7GM can.

On the whole, the ESW9A is a colored and fun-sounding headphone, falling between the mainstream-sounding MS400 and the cold and unforgiving HD25-1. The sound of the Audio-Technicas is well-blended and generally quite easy-going. Compared to the lower-end ATH-ES7, the ESW9 has a better dynamic range and softer, more rounded notes. The presentation is also a bit more intimate with the ESW9. The soundstage is medium-sized – bigger than what most Grados, the HD25-1, and even the MS400 are capable of but not as broad as that of the ATH-M50 or Ultrasone Pro 650. It is well-spaced and sounds quite ambient and three-dimensional for a portable headphone. The instrumental separation could be better but the wider soundstage helps the ATs keep up with the closed-sounding but more layered HD25. Lastly, it is worth noting that the ESW9 is nearly as forgiving as the Phiaton MS400 of poor sources and digital encoding, playing nice with tracks that the HD25 would simply butcher.

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $549.99, Street Price: $200) The Audio-Technica ATH-ESW9 offers just as much style as it does substance, competing with the better portable headphones in its price bracket (street price, not MSRP) in performance and aesthetics. Designed to be as pleasing to the ear as it is to the eye, the ESW9 is smooth-sounding and fairly well-balanced, giving up the aggressiveness and energy of the HD25 and the mellow warmth of the MS400 for a mid-line sound that is easily pegged as belonging to an Audio-Technica headphone. As far as functionality goes, the ESW9 is supraaural and isolates noticeably less than the HD25 does. The wood finish also inspires a certain delicacy of use so those who like to toss their headphones around may want to look at something else. Still, as far as stylish and truly portable mid-range headphones go, the ESW9 near the top of the food chain.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5 - 35,000 Hz
Impedance: 42 Ω
Sensitivity: 103 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.91ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

 

 

(A6) Audio-Technica ATH-M50: Aging flagship of Audio-Technica’s extensive range of DJ headphones, interest in which has been re-ignited this year by a shiny new price point

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Build Quality (9/10): The build of the ATH-M50 is quite similar to that of the Denon DN-HP700 – heavy plastics intertwined with metal structural and cosmetic elements. The cord is long and thick and the 3.5mm plug is relieved with a metal spring. Overall a very solid construction that definitely feels like it should stand the test of time.

Comfort (9/10): The oval pads of the ATH-M50 work very well without being too large. Both the headband and earcups are padded more generously than those on my Denon HP700 and Ultrasone HFI-450. Additionally, the ATH-M50 is far lighter than higher-end Ultrasone DJ cans such as the Ultrasone Pro 650, making it a bit more comfortable in the long run. Like most circumaural phones they can get a bit hot and sweaty, though.

Isolation (8/10): The soft pads and moderate clamping force result in impressive isolation, up there with the harder-clamping HFI-450 and much larger Pro 650.

Sound (8.75/10): During my initial listening sessions with the ATH-M50, I was stricken by how neatly the headphone slots in between my two other favorite circumaural DJ cans – the Denon DN-HP700 and Ultrasone Pro 650. Since the ATH-M50 is currently a very popular – some would say FOTM – closed can and reviews are plentiful, I will try to focus more on comparisons with the HP700 and Pro 650, as well as my go-to HD25s. I’ve seen the ATH-M50 described as being bass monsters, balanced, V-shaped, and everything in between. Truth is, the Audio-Technicas are incredibly versatile headphones that need a bit of juice to really shine. Unlike the Ultrasone Pro 650 and, to a lesser extent, the Denon HP700, the ATH-M50 can be satisfied by a decent portable amp, but only just. If forced to forego amplification, I would undoubtedly pick the M50 over both the HP700 and Pro 650 but at the same time I’d definitely be tempted to go for the Numark PHX Pro under such constraints.

As usual, I started my comparisons with bass tests. The low end of the M50 is definitely plentiful by my standards. The bass is full-bodied and has great depth and smoothness. Mid-bass is a tad loose when running unamped but with an amp the entire low end is punchy, clean, and controlled. The bass of the Senn HD25 is still a bit quicker but the Audio-Technicas sound slightly more natural on non-electronic tracks. The low end of the Denon HP700 is also a bit tighter than that of the M50s, especially when both are running off of a dedicated amp but the Denons are unlikely to satisfy a bass lover in ways the M50s can. Compared, on the other hand, to the much pricier Ultrasone Pro 650, the bass of the ATH-M50 is neither as warm nor as smooth but also less boomy in nature.

The midrange of the ATH-M50 is clear and competent but it is obviously not the focus of the presentation – the bass and treble of the M50 are stronger in comparison, especially when running unamped. The recession is stronger towards the top of the midrange but the V-shaped nature of the response really is very mild. Overall detail is quite good though microdetail and texture are still better on the HD25. In contrast, the treble of the M50 is unusually satisfying. It boasts great extension, plenty of sparkle, and excellent detail. It is also very crisp and lags in clarity only slightly behind the HD25. Though the highs share a similar tonal character, the HD25 is far more strident near the top and as a result more fatiguing. Those who are treble-sensitive may want to give the ATH-M50 a pass anyway but it should be noted that the Denon HP700 is even brighter and more sparkly than the M50 is. The treble of the Ultrasone Pro 650, on the other hand, is quite de-emphasized compared to the others and is unlikely to fatigue anyone, all at the expense of a bit of detail and resolution.

When it comes to presentation the ATH-M50 again holds its own quite easily against the competition. The soundstage has good depth and width for a closed can and doesn’t sound particularly intimate (a-la HD25) or distant (a-la both of my Ultrasones). The tone is a bit warm compared to the brighter and less bassy Denon HP700 but quite close to neutral on the grand scale. Imaging and positioning are quite solid as well for a $100 can, especially when amped properly – better than those of the HP700, which sounds more airy and spacious but doesn’t separate instruments as precisely as the ATH-M50 does. On the whole the presentation of the ATH-M50 won’t put the fear of being sold off into my pricier full-size cans just yet but will give anything in its class a run for the money.

Value (9.5/10). (MSRP: $199.00, Street Price: $159) The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 may be the most widely-recommended headphone at head-fi at the time of writing, and with good reason – the set manages to be well-rounded and fun at the same time – two qualities many undoubtedly find desirable in a portable set. Add in a combination of durability, comfort, and isolation to match the best portable headphones on the market and we can see why the popularity of the M50s is justified. It’s not the be-all end-all portable solution for everyone – some will undoubtedly find the bass too heavy, the treble too aggressive, or the upper mids too de-emphasized – but that’s the nature of the hobby. Part of the reason may be that even though it isn’t the least efficient DJ headphone I own, the M50 still likes plenty of power. For those who would end up going insane asking ‘what if’ when using the ATH-M50 unamped, there’s the Numark PHX Pro. For everyone else, the Audio-Technicas are easily worth the asking price.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15 - 28,000 Hz
Impedance: 38 Ω
Sensitivity: 99 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.91ft (1.2m) single-sided, coiled; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(A7) TDK WR700: Portable headphone from TDK utilizing Kleer wireless technology

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Build Quality (7/10): The construction is mostly plastic but feels quite solid. Due to the two AAA batteries and wireless receiver/control circuitry, the housings of the WR700 are slightly heavier than those of the average portable headphone of similar size but the lack of cabling makes up for the extra weight. The rubberized cups are also thicker than those of wired headphones, but not so much thicker that they draw attention. In fact, the grey-and-black aesthetic of the WR700 is extremely unassuming and rarely attracts a second glance. The headband is padded in very soft black pleather and exerts little pressure on the wearer’s head. The earcups rotate and fold inwards for storage and the shallow supraaural pads seal well with the ear – so well in fact that mild driver flex can be coaxed from the headphones. I’ve had the headphones for a while now and the folding mechanism does creak a bit but it’s nothing one wouldn’t expect from a pair of plastic hinges. Best of all, cable issues are in impossibility with the WR700.

Comfort (8/10): The WR700 is supraaural and weighs a bit more than the average wired set due to the battery compartment and wireless circuitry. The soft pads, low clamping force, and rotating earcups all make the headphone quite comfortable for prolonged use at the cost of a somewhat less-than-secure fit – the WR700 really doesn’t clamp hard enough to cope with any physical activity besides walking. The freedom from cabling, however, adds a whole new dimension to the term ‘convenience’.

Isolation (6.5/10): The soft pads provide a moderate amount of isolation – enough to make music enjoyable on the go but definitely not adequate for the subway or an airplane. The level of isolation is not at all different from what is provided by similar-size wired sets such as the Sennheiser PX200-II and Denon AH-P372.

Sound (6/10): The TDK WR700 is based around Kleer wireless technology – a specialized RF protocol also utilized by companies such as Sleek Audio, Sennheiser, and AKG. Kleer was designed as a way to harness the low-power and low-interference capabilities of the Bluetooth standard without the need for compression of CD-quality audio. Bluetooth subdivides the 2.4 Ghz wireless band into smaller segments and always seeks out the segment of minimum interference but doesn’t quite have enough bandwidth for uncompressed audio. Kleer uses larger a segmentation method but operates on the same basic principle. The bandwidth offered by Kleer, however, can handle any audio bitrate. There are additional advantages to Kleer, such as a simplified handshaking protocol and point-to-multipoint connectivity, which allows a single transmitter to be shared between several receivers.

On paper Kleer is the ideal protocol for wireless audio devices but of course the magic is in the implementation. The TDK WR700 takes four AAA batteries (two in the unit itself and two in the transmitter) and can run for upwards of 30 hours on a single set. Operation is extremely simple. There’s no channel selection or pairing trickery – just power buttons on both the headphones and transmitter and a set of volume controls on one of the earcups. What surprised me most after years of owning an old 900Mhz Sennheiser wireless set is the complete lack of interference - cordless phones, microwaves, and wireless networks have absolutely no effect on the Kleer signal. Moving toward the limit of the WR700’s 30ft range is absolutely drama-free. The Kleer system merely continues switching channels until it can no longer reach the headphones and the music cuts out. There is no static and no clicks or pops. When the headphones come back in range, audio cuts back in. If more than five minutes are spent out of range of the transmitter, the headphones will shut off to preserve battery life.

Kleer is all well and good, then, but how does the WR700 fare as a headphone? To be honest, the price/performance ratio is not brilliant, or at least would not be brilliant if the WR700 were a wired set. The first thing noticeable when the WR700 is powered on is the slight background hiss present at all times. The hiss is due to internal amp of the headphones and is an unavoidable reality of most wireless sets. With the WR700 the hiss is barely perceptible at moderate volumes between tracks and mostly inaudible once music starts playing. The overall sonic performance is competent but not outstanding. The bass is tight and relatively accurate but not nearly deep enough to satisfy bassheads. Instead, the low end of the headphone is relatively flat and in good balance with the midrange. The clarity is impressive and the headphones are quite fast and resolving, keeping up well with busy tracks. Fine detail is relayed well enough to differentiate between lossy and lossless audio files, but only just. Both the low end and midrange do suffer from a lack of real weight and texture, making the headphones sound slightly flat and lifeless.

The treble, on the other hand, is quite smooth and has the right amount of sparkle without sounding aggressive or sibilant. Top-end extension is decent but I can hear the WR700 begin drop off well before reaching the limits of my hearing. Stereo separation is excellent and the headphones do create a believable, albeit not massive, soundstage. Individual instruments are easy to pick out but can be tough to place spatially. The headphone can actually portray distance as well as intimacy adeptly but does so very rarely, instead keeping most of the audio in a band that sounds to be several feet from the listener. A ‘closed’ feel results from a lack of air and mediocre imaging - those looking for an airy and spacious sound may want to look elsewhere.

Overall, the TDK WR700 never really sounds like a $200 headphone. It is technically competent and generally quite enjoyable but lacks the ‘wow’ factor that is present in all of the truly great >$100 sets. It offers nothing unique, nothing special – it has no sound signature per se. Movie lovers probably won’t mind but music listeners may find the sound of the WR700 quite bland.

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $249.99, Street Price: $120) As the only wireless headphone in this review and the only such set I’ve ever actually liked, the WR700 has quite a lot going for it by default. It doesn’t hurt that the engineers clearly thought the design through quite well – the accessory pack, for example, includes a short extension cord for hooking the transmitter up to small portable players or hard-to-reach headphone jacks, a stretchy silicone band for piggybacking the transmitter on a portable player, a soft carrying pouch, and a ¼” adapter. The headphones themselves are compact and portable, making them useful on the move, and do not require a charging cradle or adapter of any sort, which makes them an excellent travel companion (though it should be noted that some airlines do not permit wireless electronics to be used on board). They are also reasonably light and quite comfortable, making them a joy to use at home with the TV or computer. Interference from other cordless devices is a non-issue and functionality is perfect right up to the range limits. The sound quality of the WR700 on the whole is slightly underwhelming but not downright disappointing – the headphones certainly don’t keep up with most of the wired sets in their price category, sounding a bit dull and plasticky, but still offer an improvement over entry-level sets. Bassheads and die-hard audiophiles need not apply but for the casual listener the lack of cables might just be worth all of the sacrifices. As a die-hard headphone user, I will be the first to concede that the lack of cables is an extremely underrated experience.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 106 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: N/A
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible


 

(A8) V-Moda Crossfade LP: as the first full-size headphone from the US-based designer of fashionable audio gear, the Crossfade is impressive in both design and functionality but misses the mark when it comes to sound

V-Moda Crossfade LP.jpg

Build Quality (9/10): Compared to the majority of style-oriented portable headphones, the Crossfade LP carries an air of heft and solidity. All of the chromed bits and pieces are made of stainless steel and really add up in weight but give the headphone a quality feel. The glossy plastics are a bit less impressive but their use in the load-bearing parts of the structure is minimal. The Crossfade is also neither flat-folding nor collapsible so there is very little to go wrong and, though some portability is sacrificed, the excellent hard carrying case means that the Crossfade can still be thrown into a backpack or suitcase very easily. Will the V-Moda outlast the Senn HD25-1 if abused heavily? Probably not – it is too heavy for its own good and the plastic bits will probably shatter if it is dropped too many times. For a consumer-oriented headphone, however, it’s all very impressive. Another upside is the cable – the Crossfade uses a slightly recessed 3.5mm jack and comes with two sturdy, nylon-sheathed cables. Microphone-less replacement cords are quite cheap, too – only $5.49 each on V-Moda’s website – but as with the Beats any slim 3.5mm interconnect will work.

Comfort (8.5/10): Though the Crossfade LP has an inherent comfort advantage in being fully circumaural, it is also one of the heavier consumer-class sets in this lineup and is handicapped somewhat by the moderately shallow cups. After a while I do start to feel the grilles pressing against my ears but I still find the Crossfade a touch more comfortable than any of the supraaurals with the exception of the B&W P5. The thick pleather pads do get a little hot after a while but the fact that they aren’t deep enough to seal completely helps a bit.

Isolation (8.5/10): The isolation of the Crossfade LP is on par with other portable circumaural sets from companies such as JVC and Panasonic. Like the similarly-priced Monster Beats and Phiaton MS400s, they don’t quite reach the passive attenuation level of the HD25-1 and P5 but do perform very well out and about.

Sound (6.25/10): As a brand, V-Moda has always placed more emphasis on styling and design than sound quality, but that didn’t stop the original Vibe IEMs from gaining a small audiophile following upon release. Indeed, the warm and full sound of the Vibe was a good compromise between performance and the fun factor – something I think the Phiaton MS400 does exceptionally well in the portable headphone realm. The Crossfade LP, unsurprisingly, is just as warm as and even more bass-heavy than the Phiatons, but unfortunately doesn’t perform on the same level on the whole. The Crossfades’ bass, for one, is extremely forward and sounds a little strained, as if every last bit of bass response has already been coaxed out of the drivers. Resolution is not as good as with the MS400 and bass detail gets drowned out by impact. Bass power is quite similar to the Sony MDR-XB700 but the midrange of the Crossfades is a less recessed, making them sound more balanced than the Sonys. However, despite similar extension, the bass of the Sonys still sounds a touch deeper and more articulate than that of the Crossfades. It doesn’t help that the badly recessed midrange of the XB700 is nevertheless clearer of bass bleed while the well-textured mids of the V-Modas lack clarity and still sound somewhat muffled even with the bass eq’d out. Even Monster Beats Solos have slightly better midrange clarity, sounding noticeably leaner and crisper on the whole.

The treble transition is smooth and treble emphasis is about on-par with the Sony XB700. However, the Crossfade’s clarity issues affect the treble as much as they do the midrange. Roll-off is slightly less obvious than with the MS400 but the 30kHz limit on the frequency response specification is still a gross exaggeration. Presentation-wise, the Crossfade is again decent but not outstanding, with the overwhelming bass occasionally stepping out of line and ruining the otherwise-decent layering. Separation suffers slightly as well even though the soundstage has decent width and depth. Slow recordings with sparse instrumentation sound quite good but fast and busy tracks get smeared. Don’t get me wrong – the Crossfade is not a bad headphone and still makes for an upgrade from entry-level sets like the KSC75 – but compared to the other heavy-hitters in this lineup it is simply not resolving enough. Along with the Beats Solo, the Crossfade really is a headphone I don’t see myself picking up at my leisure – what it offers in build quality, isolation, and comfort, it lacks in sound quality – a real shame as good portable circumaurals are hard to find.

Value (6.5/10). (MSRP: $249.95, Street Price: $199) Beautifully-packaged, well-accessorized, sturdily-build, isolating, and very comfortable, the Crossfade has everything I look for in a portable headphone except the big one – sound quality. With much more bass body and rumble than the Beats Solo and much less clarity, the V-Modas deserve every negative connotation of the term ‘bass monster’. On the whole, what the Crossfades do is make most the other higher-end headphones in this lineup sound good in comparison – they are not terrible but perhaps expecting them to sound like a $200 set is the wrong approach. For me, the Crossfade carries $100 worth of functionality but only $40 worth of sound.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5 - 30,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 3ft (0.9m) or 5.8 ft (1.8m), single-sided, detachable; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

For a longer review of the Crossfade LP with comparisons to the Phiaton MS400, B&W P5, Monster Beats Solo, Sony XB700, & Sennheiser HD25-1, see here



(A9) Monster Beats by Dr Dre Solo: the Beats by Dre brand may not be particularly well-liked around Head-Fi but the Solo fits the definition of a portable headphone to the dot, with some rather enticing extras thrown on top

Monster Beats Solo.jpg

Build Quality (7/10): The construction of the Beats by Dr Dre Solo uses large quantities of matte and glossy plastics throughout the structure. There is a bit of metal reinforcing the lower part of the headband but everything above the hinges is plastic – an odd (and fragile) design choice for a headphone supposedly intended for portable use. The hinges themselves feel tight and precise but the rubber padding on the inside of the headband is quite cheap-looking next to the luxurious pleather of the B&W P5 and Phiaton MS400 and the vented cloth padding of the V-Moda Crossfade LP. The Solo also exhibits mild driver flex - a crinkling sound that results from air pressure deforming the driver - which can, at times, be annoying. The cable, on the other hand, is nice and thick, with a low-profile L-plug on the far end. On the headphone side, the 3.5mm connector is not recessed so pretty much any replacement cable – including the $5.49 V-Moda ones and any 3.5mm stereo interconnects - will work.

Comfort (8/10): The Beats Solo is a supraaural headphone through and through, with the pads measuring just a hair smaller in diameter than those of the HD25-1. The padding isn’t as soft as that of the Phiaton’s MS400 but the cups have enough rotational freedom to achieve a good seal regardless. Clamping force is average and the long-term comfort of the Solos really is very similar to that of the HD25-1. One small annoyance is the rubber headband, which latches on to hair (via friction) if the headphones are yanked off quickly (as I tend to do when A:Bing several sets).

Isolation (8.5/10): While the fit of the Beats Solo is very similar to that of the HD25-1, isolation suffers slightly as a result of the lighter clamping force. The isolation of the Solo is somewhere between the looser-fitting Phiaton MS400 larger V-Moda Crossfade LP – not class-leading but plentiful for use on the go.

Sound (6.5/10): Compared to the underperforming V-Moda Crossfade LP, there are certainly good things to be said for the Beats Solo – the bass, for example, is cleaner, tighter, and quicker, and overwhelms more rarely than that of the Crossfade or Sony XB700, though a bit of the depth and rumble is missing as well. The low end of the Beats is impactful and aggressive – more so than the softer-sounding Phiaton MS400 – but lacks the texture and resolution of the latter. It’s a strange way of presenting bass, portraying all of the impact but only some of the musical information found below 100Hz – a phenomenon that’s sometimes referred to as ‘one-note bass’. On one hand it does reduce mid-range bleed – the Solos fare better than the Crossfade and XB700 and on-par with the Phiatons in that respect. On the other hand, I don’t feel that the bass of the Solos is true to source, especially at lower volumes, glossing over detail for the sake of moving more air. The attack/decay times are a bit too quick for the amount of bass the Solos attempt to portray and there is occasionally a closed, cave-like feel to bass notes. The plasticky echo from the housings doesn’t help things, either, and the pleather pads of the Beats sometimes seal too well, flexing the drivers out of shape and degrading sound quality.

The midrange of the Beats Solo, like the bass, is not brilliant but remains fairly inoffensive. Bass bleed is present but the midrange is still relatively crisp and clear – the Beats are actually slightly lean-sounding, lacking the full-bodied warmth of the Phiaton MS400 and the thickness of the B&W P5. The Beats do sound significantly more crisp than the V-Moda Crossfades, giving more edge and bite to guitars and better definition to vocals, but still lack clarity and detail next to the MS400. The result is a sound that’s slightly smoothed-over and a bit more flattering when it comes to poorly-recorded tracks. The treble transition is free of harshness and sibilance and there certainly are more ‘valleys’ than ‘peaks’ to the upper midrange and treble response of the Solo. A bit of information is also missing at the top, resulting in a slightly dark and muffled overall treble presentation without much air, but at least the treble is devoid of the metallic tinge common to more treble-heavy headphones.

Presentation is perhaps where the Beats Solo disappoints most – its soundstage is slightly larger than that of the Sennheiser HD25 but the Sennheisers are much better at separating out spatial cues, largely due to their greater clarity and detail. The soundstage of the HD25 may be small but the space is at least somewhat spherical while the Beats sound both small and flat. Like the V-Moda Crossfades, the Beats get overwhelmed on busy tracks, more so due to the congested presentation than overwhelming bass. The poor layering is also partly the fault of the relatively small dynamic range – the Beats have trouble relaying subtlety, which is made especially obvious in direct comparisons with the MS400 or B&W P5. Interestingly, Monster didn’t squeeze every last bit of output from the Beats Solo – in terms of efficiency they are somewhere between the easier-to-drive Phiatons and the slightly more demanding HD25-1. However, greater volumes are required to get good midrange presence with the Beats, which may explain the hearing loss statistics in today’s teenagers. Are the Beats Solo particularly poor headphones in my opinion? No – as with the Beats Tour IEMs, there is value for those who actually like the congested presentation and shouty dynamics of the headphones. The sound signature of the Beats will never be called ‘hi-fi’ in the strictest sense but there’s no point in judging a sound signature so I can only say that audio fidelity is not a strong suit of the beats.

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $199.95, Street Price: $179) Much-maligned around Head-Fi, the Beats by Dr Dre line is neither tuned nor marketed in a way that would appeal to audiophiles. However, like B&W, Monster seems to have done a bit of research on the kind of sound that remains engaging out in the real world. Sadly, while the B&W P5s sound like a high-end product that was simply tuned in a way that sacrifices fidelity for inoffensiveness, the Beats Solo seem to be limited by the capabilities of the drivers themselves, which are easily overwhelmed and not quick enough to cope with complex tracks. I often hear people say that the Beats are ‘only good for certain genres’ but that approach makes little sense – the honest thing to say would be that the Beats are good enough for certain genres – namely those that don’t feature multiple simultaneous sonic cues. Still, I can honestly say that the sonic performance of the Beats, while far from outstanding at $180, does not offend me (which I can’t say about the Crossfades). However, even with sound quality out of the picture, I struggle to see enough value in the Solos to justify the asking price when the better-built, more comfortable, and arguably prettier Phiaton MS400 costs about the same.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m), single-sided, detachable; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible

For a longer review of the Beats Solo with comparisons to the Phiaton MS400, V-Moda Crossfade LP, B&W P5, Sony XB700, & Sennheiser HD25-1, see here


 

(A10) Bowers & Wilkins P5: the first personal audio release from a company known best for their floorstanding speakers, the P5 certainly has the pedigree and style to roll with the favourites in this lineup

 

B&W P5.jpg

Build Quality (8.5/10): The design of the P5 manages to be both minimalistic and high-tech at the same time. Upon originally extracting the P5 from the box, I was extremely surprised by how much larger the headphone looks in all of the photos I’ve seen. Despite its small size, however, the metals and plastics used in the construction of the P5 are all of the highest quality and the headphone feels like it was built to take a beating. Despite the rock-solid construction, the P5 is only marginally heavier than the Phiatons and Monster Beats Solos – quite a feat considering how much more solid the construction of the P5 feels. The only letdown is the cable, which is thin and stringy. Mercifully, the cord is detachable, with the 2.5mm connector hidden under the (magnetically-attached) left earpad. There is also a spare (iPhone) cable included with the P5s but additional replacements will need to be purchased from B&W. Aftermarket cables terminated with a slim 2.5mm plug on one end may work in place of pricy B&W replacements but finding ones with gold-plated plugs may be a challenge.

Comfort (9.5/10): Far smaller than I originally expected, the B&W P5 occupies about the same amount of aural real estate as the Monster Beats Solo and Sennheiser HD25-1. The flat rectangular pads remind me of the ones used by Sennheiser’s HD228 and 238. Helped along by the compliant fitment mechanism of the P5, the pads spread pressure very evenly across the ear and remain comfortable for many hours. The supraaural coupling also prevents the headphones from getting too warm over prolonged listening sessions.

Isolation (9.5/10): The P5 is surprisingly well-isolating, nearly keeping up with the legendary HD25-1 despite also being more comfortable. The flat earpads, surprisingly, seal well enough for some driver flex to be coaxed from the P5. Obviously designed with portability in mind, the P5 performs beautifully as an on-the-go set on busy streets or public transport. Leakage is a little higher than with the HD25-1 but still impressively low for a supraaural.

Sound (8/10): There is no denying that the P5 is a brilliant portable headphone from a usability standpoint, but it also holds its own in sound quality against the other consumer-oriented sets in this lineup. It should be noted that the positioning of the P5 on the ear plays a role in how they sound – the optimal position for me turned out to be a bit further back than with something like the Sennheiser HD25-1 or Monster Beats Solo. Starting at the low end the P5 exhibits a relatively balanced and refined sound, offering bass quantity similar to that of the HD25-1. The bass has good extension and generally sounds well-weighted and controlled. However, the HD25 still wins out in low-end detail and texture, which is most noticeable at lower volumes as the slightly constrained dynamics of the P5 really limit its ability to sound natural unless the volume is turned up at least slightly. At lower volumes, I prefer the Phiaton MS400 as well - it is only as the volume is turned up that the Phiatons start sounding a bit plasticky in comparison. Truth be told, the P5 does have slightly better clarity and generally sounds smoother, leaner, and tighter than the MS400 but lacks the fullness of the Phiaton’s bass and the warm lushness of its midrange.

On the whole, the B&W P5 is still a warm-sounding headphone and has a noticeable emphasis on the mid/upper bass and lower midrange. Bass bleed is, for the most part, minimal, and the mids sound smooth and pleasant. In the context of the P5’s laid-back sound signature, the lower mids are actually somewhat forward but next to the intimate-sounding MS400, the P5 still sounds slightly distant on the whole. Detail retrieval and clarity lag slightly behind the HD25-1 (especially at low volumes) and transparency is far from outstanding. Partly this is due to the slightly thicker notes as presented by the P5 – in the IEM realm this sort of presentation would be equivalent to a Klipsch Custom 3 or Radius DDM. The P5 is not veiled-sounding in the strictest sense but it really doesn’t portray intimacy as well as the HD25 or MS400 can, which I feel has more to do with the way the soundstage works (more on that later). In addition, there definitely is a distinct coloration to the sound of the B&Ws, as well as a darker overall tone, which won’t be to everyone’s liking.

The treble transition is smooth and untarnished by harshness and sibilance. It seems that B&W took extra steps to make the P5 as inoffensive as possible to the average listener as they actually have a tendency to diminish sibilance present on recordings. The MS400 and HD25, while mostly smooth and level between the midrange and treble, certainly don’t go out of their way to do any of that and as a result get harsh faster when the volume is cranked beyond reason. The treble of the P5 is soft and smooth but not particularly crisp or sparkly. Treble clarity is on-par with the MS400 but the HD25 still fares better and derives an additional bit of perceived clarity from its brighter overall tone. To my ears, the greater treble energy of the HD25 makes for a more realistic overall sound but I’m sure many will disagree. Regardless, despite being laid-back on the whole and especially in the treble, I can’t say that the P5 sounds either recessed or rolled-off. The treble is all there but prominence is not one of its strong suits, which adds to the darker overall tonality of the headphones.

As mentioned above, the overall presentation of the B&W P5 is laid-back, putting a bit of distance between the listener and the music, a-la Sennheiser’s higher-end open sets, and makes the HD25 and MS400 sound more forward in comparison. The soundstage itself is fairly well-rounded, with good width and decent depth, but limited on either end. The front-to-rear and top-to-bottom positioning of the P5 is on-par with the HD25 and not quite as good as the MS400. At times the P5 seems to lack positioning precision and elements – especially vocals – can sound a tiny bit ethereal. The HD25, on the other hand, has less soundstage width but makes up for it with slightly better separation and layering, as well as a bit more positioning precision. Part of the issue is the dynamic range of the P5, which is only slightly better than that of the MS400 and not nearly as impressive as that of the HD25. Whereas the MS400 has a tendency to be a little ‘shouty’, especially at higher volumes, the P5 is closer to the center of the spectrum and really can’t portray extreme aggression or extreme delicacy very well. In its defense, the P5 works just fine straight out of a portable player, which was obviously the designers' intent, and manages to be pretty forgiving of crappy recordings and rips while maintaining a semblance of fidelity, partly due to the slightly compressed dynamic range. On the whole, the P5 is definitely a peculiar flavour of headphone – colored and far from flawless from a technical standpoint - and probably won’t appeal to those who, like myself, seek a more realistic and neutral sound even on the move. However, there is charm in the unabashed mainstream-ness of the P5 and I have to admit that the engineers at B&W do understand the type of thick, slightly bassy sound that works best in a portable setting.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $299.99, Street Price: $300) The B&W P5 is easily the priciest of the consumer-grade portables – a luxury gadget for the iPod/iPhone crowd. It is also the one with the most hi-fi pedigree and, unlike the Monster Beats, is fairly likely to be picked up by a discerning listener in search of fidelity. Fidelity, however, is not a strong suit of the headphones, which possess a couple of technical shortcomings but generally take few sonic risks with their warm and colored sound. Sonically, the P5 has trouble pulling itself above cheaper competition from manufacturers such as Phiaton, Denon, Audio-Technica, and Sony. Where the P5 succeeds is in offering comfort, portability, and isolation to match the HD25 without tossing style so completely out of the window. Build quality could also be considered impressive if not for the vermicelli-thin detachable cable. Is the P5 worth $300? It is to those who are willing to pay a premium for the combination of extreme portability, style, comfort, isolation, iPhone-compatibility, and decent - if not hi-fi – sound offered by the P5. However, I don’t see myself ever using ‘P5’ and ‘bang-per-buck’ in the same sentence unless the price drops by at least a third.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10 - 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 26 Ω
Sensitivity: 115 dB/1V
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m), single-sided, detachable; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

For a longer review of the B&W P5 with comparisons to the Phiaton MS400, V-Moda Crossfade LP, Monster Beats Solo, Sony XB700, & Sennheiser HD25-1, see here



(A11) Sony MDR-ZX700: circumaural headphone introduced to the US market at CES 2011

Sony MDR-ZX700.jpg

Build Quality (8.5/10): To match the low weight of the magnesium alloy used in the structure of the flagship MDR-Z1000, the ZX700 is made almost completely out of plastic. The rough and thick materials do remind me of the HD25-1 but, being nearly twice as heavy, the ZX700 is likely more susceptible to damage from being dropped. Still, the plain-looking headphones do feel like a quality product despite using very few metal parts and the lack of a folding or collapsing mechanism instill further confidence in their longevity. The 1.2m single-sided cable is well-relieved and quite thick, reminding me of the cord on my Ultrasone HFI-15G. A 1.8m extension is included for home use, which is actually my preferred configuration over coiled cords or the monstrous 9-foot straight cables found on many higher-end cans.

Comfort (8.5/10): Despite its size, the ZX700 is a fairly light headphone and remains comfortable for hours. The moderate clamping force is distributed very evenly by the plush pads and the cups are just deep enough for my ears not to touch the grilles. Headband padding, too, is ample – really, the only downside of the ZX700 is that, like all closed, pleather-padded full-size headphones, it can get quite warm after a while. The slightly lighter and smaller MDR-V6 doesn’t get quite as hot, for example.

Isolation (8.5/10): Though the ZX700 has what looks like a pair of vents on the earcups, they don’t seem to leak any sound and overall isolation is very good – a bit better than with the smaller MDR-V6.

Sound (8/10): Though the ZX700 is only one model down from the flagship MDR-Z1000, the huge price difference between the two headphones puts the ZX700 firmly into the mid-range portable headphone segment. Sonically, the ZX700 is far closer to the legendary MDR-V6 studio headphones than the consumer-oriented XB-series models I’ve been using lately. The bass, for one, is tight and controlled despite lacking in neither weight nor body. Though the MDR-V6 has slightly better depth, the ZX700 doesn’t trail far behind and wins out in detail and punch. Impact lags behind the ATH-M50 but the ZX700 is by no means bass-light. The general balance of the ZX700 actually reminds me of the Bowers & Wilkins P5 but the Sonys are easily more detailed, textured, and resolving than the ultra-portable B&Ws. Their larger transducers also move more air for ‘visceral’ impact, though the P5 really doesn’t fare too poorly in this regard. The bass-midrange balance of the ZX700 is a bit better than that of the V6, making the transition appear smoother and the general signature – more balanced. Indeed, I couldn’t think of a better term for the overall sound of the ZX700 than ‘well-blended’ as the sound signature really does sit better with me than the sum of its parts.

The midrange is free of bass bleed and slightly warm. There is a bit of emphasis on the lower mids but not enough to throw off the excellent overall balance of the headphone. Clarity and detail are quite good as well but fall slightly behind Sennheiser’s brighter and leaner-sounding HD25-1. The ZX700 may not be as crystal-clear as Sennheiser’s flagship portable but it is warmer, smoother, and thicker-sounding. The note thickness actually makes the ZX700 sound a tiny bit fuller than the classic MDR-V6 as well. Timbre and tone are equally solid, highlighting the slightly metallic character of the brighter HD25. The treble transition is smooth and quite uneventful. In fact, the treble is most mundane part of the ZX700’s sound, acting more as a compliment to the bass and midrange than an equal part of the spectrum. That said, treble presence and extension are decent. The detail and texture will beat out the more treble-happy MDR-V6 on busy tracks and, while there’s not much sparkle to be found, when a track calls for high amounts of treble energy, the ZX700 will (begrudgingly) deliver.

The presentation of the ZX700 again impresses with its all-around competency but doesn’t do anything exceptionally well. The headphones lean slightly towards intimacy but the soundstage is quite well-rounded. In terms of size it is similar to that of the MDR-V6, beating out the HD25 and B&W P5 in width and three-dimensional space. Instruments are well-separated and positioning is quite decent. Tonally, the ZX700 is closer to neutral than the dark-sounding B&W P5 but not quite as bright as the V6, resulting in a lack of ‘airiness’ in the upper registers, which usually results from a headphone’s treble lift. There are advantages to the smoother, calmer treble of the ZX700 as it is less prone to harshness and sibilance and reveals fewer flaws in the recording than the V6 and HD25, both of which were designed for use in monitoring applications. At the same time, the punchy bass of the ZX700 keeps the sound signature lively on the whole and the timbre of the ZX700 is a bit more natural compared to the V6 and HD25. Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that the ZX700 is quite efficient – more so than both the HD25 and V6 – and easily reaches ear-splitting volume levels with my old Sansa Clip, benefitting relatively little from a dedicated amp being added to the chain.

Value (8.5/10). (MSRP: $119.99, Street Price: $119) As far as I am concerned Sony could easily have stuck a 9’ cord on the ZX700 and called it full-size can. They didn’t, however, creating a questionably portable but undoubtedly competent mid-range circumaural. Solid unamped performance, good passive isolation, and a plain black-and-silver design all further the ZX700’s claims to being one for the iPod crowd. More importantly, the Sonys sound good – about how I imagine the $300 B&W P5s could sound at their absolute best, if B&W ever were to re-tune the headphone. Punchy and warm but with excellent resolution and a strong midrange presence, the Sonys make for good all-rounders and, while they may not quite beat the ATH-M50 and HD25 on a technical level, the sound signature simply works when taken as a whole. For those willing to put portability last, the ZX700 may well be worth looking into, especially when it hits US shores officially. Furthermore, if the Z1000 is as good a value at $540 as its sibling is at $120, I may just have to start saving up for this thread’s new benchmark.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5 - 40,000 Hz
Impedance: 24 Ω
Sensitivity: 104 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.9ft (1.2m) + 5.9ft (1.8m) extension, single-sided; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

Big thanks to jant71 for the MDR-ZX700 loan!


 

 

(A12) Monster Beats by Dr Dre Studio: original noise-cancelling model from Monster’s Dre-endorsed headphone line

Monster Beats by Dr Dre Studio.jpg

Build Quality (7.5/10): As with the cheaper Beats by Dr Dre Solo, the construction of the Studio model utilizes mostly heavy plastics with a glossy finish. The moving parts are metal but the Studio, being much heavier than the Solo, tends to rattle a bit at the hinges. On the upside, the padding of the Studio is a bit more generous and there is no driver flex. The ANC function requires a pair of AAA batteries, which slot into a compartment on the left earcup. The right earcup holds a sliding on/off switch and a handy mute button. Like the Solo, the Studio is equipped with a detachable 3.5mm cable but the jack is slightly recessed so not all replacement cables will work.

Comfort (8.5/10): The Beats Studio is a circumaural headphone similar in size to the V-Moda Crossfade LP. Like the Crossfade, the Studio is on the heavy side as far as portable headphones go but the padding is ample and long-term comfort is quite good. It does get a little warm after a while but not too bad.

Isolation (9/10): The passive isolation of the Beats lags just a tad behind that of the V-Moda Crossfades and other mid-size circumaurals but the ANC functionality makes up for it for those who travel. Personally, I don’t think the ANC is very impressive compared to the higher-end Bose sets but it does work as advertised.

Sound (6.75/10): I’ve read multiple times that the Beats by Dre Studio are vastly superior in sound quality to the Beats Solo I happen to have reviewed recently, but I just don’t hear it. The problems of the Studio are all the same ones that the Solo suffers from – slightly bloated bass, mediocre clarity (considering the price), and a congested presentation. Like the Solo, the Studio has emphasized, omnipresent bass that is nevertheless tighter than the muddy low end of the V-Moda Crossfades. The bass is aggressive and, at time, intrusive. Impact is good but the texture and detail leave some to be desired, especially considering the price of the headphones. The cheaper Sennheiser HD25, for example, sounds much faster, cleaner, and more controlled than the Beats without giving up much impact. As with the Solos, I feel that the bass of the Studios, while powerful, is not true to source, glossing over detail for the sake of moving more air. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the drivers Monster used in the headphones are slow, but for the price tag I expect a lot more resolution from a set of full-size headphones.

There is some mid-range bleed with the Studios but it is limited by the slight forwardness of the mids (at least when compared to the Solo). Midrange clarity is about on-par with the Solos and on-level with the $40 Sennheiser PX90 I’ve been listening to, which is not terrible for a headphone with the bass bloat of the Monster Studios but certainly very disappointing for the asking price. There is a very slight but constant veil over the midrange and treble regions, which is made all the more annoying by the constant hiss of the ANC circuit and the additional interference it picks up from some RF devices. At their quietest, the Beats Studio are about as silent as a very sensitive headphone with a huge impedance mismatch. As a result, they really do not impress during quiet passages. Detail and texture are again fairly average as far as portable sets go – certainly no better than with the $60 Sennheiser PX100-II or the $90 AKG K430s. On the whole, the Beats sound a bit smoothed-over, as if designed to hide poor mastering and compression artifacts - not traits I normally associate with headphones named ‘Studio’.

Expectedly, the treble of the Studios is a bit laid-back compared to the midrange but not missing altogether. Detail and clarity are similarly mediocre and the top end seems to roll off a bit earlier than with my HD25-1. The lack of notable treble emphasis does mean that there’s no sibilance or harshness to the sound of the Beats but some information is missing at the top, resulting in a slightly dark and muffled overall treble presentation without much air. Tonally, the Studios are on the warm side of things but not quite up there with the Phiaton MS400s. The soundstage of the Studio Beats is slightly larger than that of the Sennheiser HD25 but the Sennheisers are much better at separating out spatial cues, largely due to their greater clarity and detail. While the Studios do beat the Solos in presentation, they are still not what I would call spacious or three-dimensional in presentation. Most annoyingly, the Studios get overwhelmed fairly easily on busy tracks due to a lethal combination of congested presentation and overblown bass. Interestingly, the Studio model is a bit more efficient than the Solo model and the slightly greater dynamic range means music played through them is still enjoyable at safe listening volumes.

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $349.99, Street Price: $275) The original Monster Beats by Dr Dre model, the Studio is the headphone responsible for introducing an entire generation to high-end portable audio. As with the Beats Solo, the Studio is not a hi-fi headphone no matter how many times Monster tacks “HD” to the name – fidelity was clearly not a design criterion when they were tuned. Like the cheaper Beats Solo, the Studio is a bass-heavy set with relatively good presence throughout and a congested, but not claustrophobic, presentation. Those who have heard other Beats models should also not be surprised to learn that the clarity and resolution are not particularly great and that they tend to sound a bit murky at the top. However, an entire generation is now more open-minded to spending upwards of $150 on a set of headphones and that’s a victory for the entire industry. As for the Beats themselves, I see no reason to pay $275 for them. The ANC feature may be of value to some, but if ANC is the goal, Bose does it better anyway in my experience. Attention to detail is good but again the cheaper V-Moda Crossfades are packaged and accessorized better than the Beats, which just leaves build quality and comfort. The build quality is reasonable but the construction is not bulletproof – any of the popular DJ cans in the $100-200 range will last longer if abused. The comfort is probably the most competitive aspect of the beats, but again many other large portables do comfort just as well for less. I can see why the Beats are popular, I really can – the combination of features and marketing has always been a large part of Monster’s brilliance – but I can only hope that in planning to purchase the Beats, a small fraction of music lovers will stumble on a truly hi-fi set instead and make an educated purchasing decision.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: N/A
Impedance: N/A
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 4.3ft (1.3m), single-sided, detachable; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible

 

Big thanks to mcnoiserdc for the Beats Studio loan!

 

 

 

(A13) Bose Triport (AE1): Passively isolating circumaural portable from Bose

 

Bose Triport AE.jpg

 

Build Quality (6.5/10): The Triport is mostly plastic and actually looks quite cheap up close. The headband seems to be the only metal bit and even that’s noticeably thinner than the one on the cheaper Maxell DHP-II. The plastic forks don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence, either. Pulling the pads aside slightly leaves unpainted plastic and the internal wiring in plain sight. Luckily, the strain reliefs are long and flexible so the thin and plasticky cabling is not too likely to go wrong. The unusually long cable is terminated with a 45-degree 3.5mm plug.

 

Comfort (9.5/10): The clamping force of the Bose is low and the cups are highly adjustable. The pads are extremely soft and the cloth headband is sufficiently supple. They can heat up a bit over time but are still very easy to wear for long stretches.

 

Isolation (7/10): The Triports seem to perform like closed headphones despite the small vents on the outside of the cups. Unfortunately, they don’t isolate as much as the harder-clamping memory foam pads of the JVC HA-S700 and Equation EP3070 but are still usable outside. Overall sound leakage is low.

 

Sound (7/10): Bose is much-maligned around head-fi as a brand but the original Triport AE, I feel, could have been a fairly popular headphone under another brand name. The cheapest circumaural Bose model certainly isn’t without flaws but it puts up an enjoyable – though not necessarily photorealistic – performance in most areas. I was expecting a Monster Beats by Dre – like level of bass dominance and poor clarity but the AE is quite well-balanced and surprisingly clear. There is a bit of bass boost but the low end is hardly overblown. While it rolls off quickly past about 35Hz, the bass is punchy and fairly well-controlled next to bottom-heavy sets like the Maxell DHP-II, which is noticeably deeper and more powerful but also sounds boomy and overly full next to the Bose.

 

The midrange transition is smooth and bass bleed is minimal. The mids are surprisingly clear and detailed – certainly a step above those of the Maxell DHP-II. In contrast to so many other consumer-oriented sets I’ve come across, the Bose errs on the thin side when it comes to note thickness and has a brighter overall tone. Even next to the HD25-1, the Triport sounds a bit trebly, which accentuates the already-decent clarity of the drivers. There is a bit of unevenness at the top end but the treble is relatively controlled and none of the peaks are particularly sharp. The treble extends surprisingly well but does lack a bit of texture overall, which gives the Triports a glassy, shimmery sound. The Maxell DHP-II, which is significantly darker in tone, is both smoother and more textured than the Triport. While its sound is not as energetic and lively as that of the Bose, it is also a bit less fatiguing for prolonged listening sessions. Neither headphone is a model of neutrality but for different flavors of highly colored sound, they work well enough.

 

My biggest issue with the Bose aside from the sonic coloration is undoubtedly the presentation. The drivers of the headphones are angled to make the earcups more compact and the resulting imaging just doesn’t work for me. Certain things are positioned way too far towards the rear of the sonic image, causing the Bose to lack sufficient forward projection. Instrumental separation and layering are decent but not particularly realistic - the Triport seems to exaggerate positioning cues and doesn’t image consistently over its medium-sized stage. A lot of the time it is quite forward, which works fairly well with the energetic sound, but then the positioning of some cues is exaggerated to create a false sense of dimensionality, which can be unsettling with familiar recordings. Interestingly, they sound a bit more realistic if I unseal the earcups and angle the drivers closer to the standard orientation in relation to my ears.

 

Value (7.5/10). (MSRP: $149.00, Street Price: $100) With the release of the new AE2, the price of the original Triport has finally dropped into a bracket more in line with its capabilities. The headphone does offer superb comfort and decent isolation from external noise but is let down by the mediocre build quality and sound that doesn’t quite cut the grade for the steep MSRP. For such an oft-maligned model, however, the AE1 has surprisingly good clarity and better overall balance than the Beats by Dre, the dreadfully bassy Klipsch Image One, and a multitude of other consumer-oriented cans. In fact, I prefer the balance of the Bose to that of the Marshall Major and Soundmagic P30, as well as host of other sets more or less well-liked around Head-Fi. The downsides are the sonic coloration, which results mostly from the bright treble and mediocre texture, and strange positioning tendencies, which likely result from the angled drivers. All in all, the Triport is not exactly hi-fi and even at the current, reduced prices it is possible to do better for the money when prioritizing sound quality. Taking into account the lightweight, comfortable, circumaural form factor, however, the Bose AE1 is not the worst way to spend $100. 

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: N/A

Impedance: 32 Ω

Sensitivity: 97 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 4.92ft (1.5m); Angled Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 

 

 

(A14) Beyerdynamic DT1350: high-end pro-oriented portable from Beyerdynamic

Beyerdynamic DT1350.jpg

Build Quality (10/10): My first thoughts upon opening the typically plain Beyerdynamic packaging were, “At last, an HD25 competitor”. Indeed, in typical Beyerdynamic fashion, the DT1350 is built like a tank. Whereas the HD25 emphasizes easy disassembly, replaceable parts, and lightweight construction, the DT1350 goes straight for the Panzer approach with its ample use of industrial-looking metal and minimal moving parts. In terms of cosmetics, the matte metal of the DT1350 is a little less discreet than the rough black plastic of the HD25 but the headphones are still very restrained and professional-looking. Like the HD25, the DT1350 features a split headband and additional configurations for single-ear monitoring are allowed by the swiveling earcups. Perhaps the only area where the HD25 has a clear advantage is with the detachable, user-replaceable cable. However, the DT1350 makes the best of its single-sided cord by using a reinforced sheath similar to the one found on the old Philips HP1000, as well as the meatiest I-plug I’ve ever seen. The lightweight cable is a healthy 5 feet in length – not quite long enough to sacrifice portability but not so short as to make using an extension a must for studio use. On the point of portability, the DT1350 comes with semi-hard carrying case that’s sturdier, but also slightly more time-consuming to use, than the simple zippered canvas pouch included with the limited edition HD25. No spare earpads are included but you do get both a 6.3mm and airline stereo adapters.

Comfort (7.5/10): For a headphone with more metal than plastic in the construction, the DT1350 is quite light and compact. Naturally, the plastic HD25 is lighter still and has a slight comfort advantage with the velour earpads, but the difference is small. Clamping force is a bit higher with the Beyerdynamics but whereas the HD25 relies on the earpads to distribute most of the clamp, the DT1350 hangs some of its weight on the headband as well. The cups have a very good range of motion and the padding, though firm for good isolation, remains comfortable even for lengthy listening sessions.

Isolation (10/10): Slightly better than what my HD25 manages with vinyl pads. Without a doubt the new standard for portable headphones.

Sound (9.25/10): The sound of the DT1350 is emphasizes balance and control, with excellent presence across the frequency spectrum and few peaks and drops. The low end is deep and impactful but remains tight and controlled at all times. The bass is not thin but it is quick and slightly dry, perhaps even a bit low on note decay time. In comparison, the note presentation of the Sennheiser HD25 is softer but the Sennheisers have more of a mid-bass hump for added punch and power. The bass of the DT1350 is not lacking, however, and sub-bass is a touch stronger than with the Sennheisers. Interestingly, with amplification, the sub-bass gets stronger still - high-efficiency Tesla drivers or not, performance at the very limits still seems limited with portable devices.

The midrange of the DT1350 is clean and very detailed. Control is the operative word as the powerful bass never overshadows the midrange. The lower mids are a tiny bit forward but drop down towards the top. Taken as a whole, however, the sound is reasonably flat through the midrange and treble – flatter than the HD25, for example. There is a slight bit of warmth to the DT1350 but not nearly as much as with a B&W P5 or Phiaton MS400. The smoothness, too, is impressive – both the midrange and treble have good texture and microdetail, never sounding smoothed-over, but manage to avoid grain, harshness, and sibilance. On the whole, the top end sounds more natural with the Beyers than it does with the HD25. It is more extended, a touch more detailed, and very non-fatiguing next to the sparkly and energetic HD25. Tonally, the DT1350 is darker than the HD25 and the few full-size Beyerdynamic sets I’ve heard – namely the DT770/250 and DT880/600, but not by a huge stretch.

Truth be told, the signature battle between the DT1350 and HD25-1 can swing either way based on preference, though I do think that the DT1350 has a small edge when it comes to actually being true to source. The presentation of the Beyerdynamics doesn’t make splitting them with the Sennheisers any easier. The soundstage of the HD25 can be disappointing next to many full-size headphones and really shouldn’t be difficult to beat but unfortunately the DT1350 doesn’t offer a sizeable upgrade from the somewhat meager sonic space of the Senns. The presentation of the DT1350 lacks some of the air of the HD25 and tends to be a bit more forward on average. Similarly, the aggressive, slightly v-shaped sound of the HD25 doesn’t do the presentation of the Sennheisers any favors. The DT1350 tends to image better but, surprisingly, the HD25 layers more convincingly. While the DT1350 has no trouble separating instruments, the HD25 makes it easier to distinguish between a track’s background and foreground. The HD25 can also be said to have better dynamics, though with amplification there seems to be a change in favor of the DT1350. On the whole neither really has the upper hand in overall presentation competency and it seems that even a thoroughly modern, high-end supraaural portable just can’t do soundstaging the way a full-size headphone can.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $299.00, Street Price: $299) It’s not every year that I see something as solid as the HD25 knocked off its pedestal but the Beyerdynamic DT1350 is a high-end portable headphone done right. Superb build quality and unprecedented isolation meet sound quality that can rival the best portable headphones I’ve heard and many full-size sets. The construction is nothing short of bulletproof and - soundstage size aside - the DT1350 is technically the best truly portable headphone I’ve come across, boasting superb detail and clarity, excellent bass control, and a level signature. That said, the Sennheiser HD25-1 still offers the more involving and exciting sound experience, occasionally making the DT1350 seem a little dull in comparison, and many will undoubtedly prefer it despite its slightly lower accuracy. In the end, neither headphone is perfect and recommending the shiny and new DT1350 over the aging, industrial-looking HD25 is made more difficult still by the hefty difference in price. As always signature preferences will likely play a larger role than the actual performance gap when deciding between the two top-tier portables but both are well worth the money for the discerning listener.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5-30,000 Hz
Impedance: 80 Ω
Sensitivity: 109 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4.92ft (1.5m), single-sided, coiled (up to 6’); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

 

Huge thanks to JamesMcProgger for the DT1350 loan!

 



(A15) Audio-Technica ATH-ES10: Audio-Technica’s flagship portable headphone, combining the look of a more grown up ATH-ES7 with the best of Audio-Technica’s house sound

Audio-Technica ATH-ES10.jpg

Build Quality (8.5/10): The construction of the ES10 is highly reminiscent of the older ESW9 except for the polished titanium earcups replacing the beautiful wood of the ESW9s. As with the ESW9, the forks and headband trim are all plastic while the headband itself is stainsless steel. All of the bits on the larger ES10 are beefier and more substantial but the headphones still aren’t quite as industrial as the Sennheiser HD25 or Beyerdynamic DT1350 - while far from fragile, I can’t see myself treating them as poorly as I do my HD25. The soft and flexible dual-sided cable is sturdy but somewhat thin for a portable headphone. The fact that Audio-Technica, as usual, has only bothered to include a soft carrying pouch doesn’t help matters.

Comfort (9/10): The ES10 is quite large for a supraaural headphone – significantly larger than the HD25 or DT1350 and approaching the size of an AKG K181DJ or Beats by Dre Studio. The pads have a large diameter and while they don’t enclose the ear, the general feel is somewhat similar to the semi-circumaural Phiaton MS400. The earpads and headband are generously padded but the material isn’t as nice as the lambskin used on the ESW9. The structure is highly adjustable and the clamping force is generally mild - in my opinion about as comfortable as a large supraaural can be.

Isolation (8/10): The large earpads and collapsible structure provide low leakage and isolation similar to that of the Phiaton MS400. They don’t quite keep up with the DT1350 or HD25-1 but should be tolerable for commuting.

Sound (9.25/10): While the ES10 slots just above the ESW9 in Audio-Technica’s extensive product lineup, its sound signature is more reminiscent of the lower-end ES7 than the smoother, more mid-centric ESW9. Generally speaking, the sound of the ES10 is slightly v-shaped, albeit no more so than that of my beloved Sennheiser HD25-1. The bass has impressive extension, reaching deeper than that of the HD25-1, and the low end may be the most powerful of all the higher-end portables I’ve heard. The HD25-1 seems to a bit more mid-bassy in comparison and yet the bass of the ES10 remains punchier and more aggressive – and at times more intrusive – than that of the HD25. Like the ESW9, the ES10 is not quite as quick as the HD25 but it can hardly be labeled ‘slow’. It can nearly match the bass quantity of the Klipsch Image One but sounds much cleaner, more detailed, and more controlled. Compared to the ES10, the Image One is bloated and muddy, with a distinct lack of texture and very poor definition. The Denon D1100, too, carries a bit more bass impact than the ES10 at the expense of being boomier and slower. Even the decidedly less bassy Phiaton MS300 yields to the ES10 in clarity and control.

The midrange of the ES10 is slightly laid-back compared to the low end but it is smooth, clear, and very well-textured, with detail levels comparable to the HD25 overall. Vocals simply come alive with great intelligibility and tons of texture. The HD25 still sounds a touch more crisp than the liquid and smooth ES10 but the difference isn’t huge. The gap between the ES10 and Klipsch Image One is much wider, with the mids of the Klipsch sounding hollow and veiled at the same time. The Denon D1100 and Phiaton MS300, too, can’t keep up with the midrange clarity of the ES10. The AKG Q460 can, but at the expense of note thickness and realism. The cooler tone and poorer dynamics of the AKGs don’t do them any favors in the accuracy battle against the ES10 and lose the ‘fun factor’ battle outright. The ES10, while clean and detailed, is hardly neutral or clinical, but it sure is smooth.

Staying true to the typical Audio-Technica sound, much of the coloration of the ES10 comes from the shiny, prominent treble. Between the punchy bass and treble emphasis, the ES10 reminds me of the company’s CKM99 in-ear earphone, albeit with better overall refinement and lower listening fatigue. The treble of the ES10 is bright and energetic but it is neither harsh nor sibilant except where warranted by the recording. On the same less-than-perfect 80s metal tracks, the ES10 makes the HD25 sound splashy and unpleasant but – unlike the ESW9 – loses no sparkle or detail points to the Sennheisers. Extension on the top, as on the bottom, is very good.

The presentation of the ES10 does not put it ahead of the HD25-1 or Beyerdynamic DT1350 but it is – at the very least - competitive with the Germans. The soundstage is reasonable in size but not huge. The ES10 tends to be a bit forward, especially at the low end, and lacks the ambient feel of some of my full-size headphones, but it doesn’t sound as small as the HD25-1, either. There is not much more depth than with the HD25 but the ES10 layers a bit better. Instrumental separation and imaging are good and the ES10 does not share the softened dynamics of the ESW9, nor does it suffer from the closed-in, cavernous feel present in some of the other sealed, bass-heavy headphones (e.g. Denon D1100). Not unexpectedly, it does like external amplification when plugged into a portable device. The sensitivity is certainly high enough for use with an iPod or iPhone but the bass doesn’t quite reach the amazing levels of effortlessness and the sound isn’t as refined or spacious overall. The difference is small, but noticeable.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $499.00, Street Price: $375) The ATH-ES10 is undoubtedly a top-tier portable headphone that, in typical Audio-Technica fashion, combines gobs of style with tons of substance. The Titanium finish is somehow befitting the clean, bright, and punchy sound, and though the wood cups and lambskin earpads of the ESW9 were arguably more impressive as far as finish goes, the beefier ES10 is more comfortable and slightly better-built. Like the other higher-end ES-series headphones, the ES10 is easily scratched and won’t be as handy on the go as the industrial-strength DT1350 or HD25-1 but those willing to pay a premium for the aesthetics and then exercise some extra caution to keep the headphones pristine are not likely to be disappointed with the ES10.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5-40,000 Hz
Impedance: 42 Ω
Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m); Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

Huge thanks to The Other Allen for the ES10 loan!
 

 

 

(A16) Denon AH-D1100: Denon’s bass-heavy follow-up to the renowned D1001k model

Denon AH-D1100.jpg

Build Quality (9/10): The D1100 is fairly large for a portable headphone but remains lightweight due to the plastic and aluminum construction. Aluminum is used in the headband and earcups while the forks and trim are plastic. The D1100 does fold flat and the dual-sided cable is thick and sturdy but it somehow looks and feels less portable than the older D1001k and its sibling, the Creative Aurvana Live!. Still, the construction is very solid and the headphones feel anything but cheap. A very long extension cable and soft carrying pouch are included.

Comfort (9/10): The cups of the D1100 are fully circumaural, some of the deepest I’ve seen on a portable headphone. The pads are plush and very well-made and the moderate clamping force keeps the headphones well-sealed. Heat is an issue for moderate to long listening sessions as the cups are not vented. The wide ‘shoulders’ of the headphones and relatively large size may look strange in portable applications.

Isolation (8.5/10): The thick pleather pads and adjustable structure of the D1100 provide impressive isolation, easily on par with most of the DJ headphones in this lineup.

Sound (8.25/10): There is no getting around it – the D1100 is one for the bassheads. The low end is extremely powerful, enhanced not in depth – which is about average – but in impact and relative emphasis. The bass is on the boomy side, fat and hard-hitting. It remains strong quite high up, above the range occupied by the typical mid-range hump. Many would undoubtedly prefer extra bottom-end extension to such strong upper bass but it is what it is, at least without EQ. It sounds a bit loose next to fast-and-tight sets such as the ATH-ES10, Beyerdynamic DT1350, and Sennheiser HD25-1, all of which are faster and slightly more resolving than the Denons. The bass of the D1100 is not slow but it is heavy enough to be ever-present, sometimes intrusive. It can fatigue, even annoy those who prefer more balanced sound. That said, out of the similarly-priced portables I have on hand only the Klipsch Image One can match the D1100 in bass quantity, but it does so at the expense of speed and clarity. For the discerning basshead, then, the Denons may just be at the top of their game.

Surprisingly, the bass does not bleed up into the midrange too much – enough to give the midrange a characteristic warmth but not so much as to heavily affect the clarity. The midrange still sounds clear, detailed, and reasonably open. It has a smooth, liquid character to it but lacks the veiled warmth and sub-par resolution of the similarly-bassy Image One. In terms of emphasis, the mids sound recessed due to the dominant low end but are not distant in the overall soundscape. The Sennheiser HD25, which undoubtedly has better bass-midrange balance, still fails to sound as intimate as the D1100 can. Part of it comes down the more enveloping soundstage of the D1100 but part of it is due to the mids simply being more lush and full than those of the HD25 and other studio-oriented headphones.

The top end of the Denons is balanced well with the midrange and sufficiently present despite some roll-off at the very top. There is a bit of sparkle at the expense of some smoothness compared to something like the V-Moda M-80 and Phiaton MS400 but all in all the top end isn’t really noteworthy – not full of air and energy a-la HD25-1 and ATH-ES10 and not purposely non-fatiguing like that of the M-80. Tonally, that causes the D1100 to fall slightly on the dark side of neutral – not quite as much as the Klipsch Image One but clearly darker than the HD25 and AKG’s Q460. The presentation of the D1100 is fairly big, giving more front-to-rear and top-to-bottom space than the majority of portable headphones. The sonic space is deeper than it is wide, however, causing the layering to sound exaggerated and the overall sound to be somewhat cavernous. While the depth of the sound and the separation are very good, the derived sonic image isn’t as convincing as with some of the more conventional portables despite the superior layering. Not a great set for pinpoint accuracy, but those seeking a more cinematic experience will probably like the presentation.

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $199.00, Street Price: $199). The Denon AH-D1100 is a fully circumaural portable headphone that follows in the footsteps of the older Denon AH-D1001k/Creative Aurvana Live!. Happily, the construction is far more heavy-duty than that of the CAL! and the headphones have made gains in portability and isolation with the new flat-folding design, harder-clamping headband arms, and thicker imitation leather pads. The headphone also remains lightweight and comfortable aside from a tendency to heat up over time. The sound, however, takes a step into basshead heaven even when compared to the already consumer-friendly warm character of the older model. There are sets with deeper bass out there but the D1100 impresses with its punch and power. The low end can be intrusive, even annoying, and analytical listeners will not appreciate it but the D1100 does a good enough job keeping it all coherent and reasonably controlled. It’s an easy one to recommend for bass lovers looking for a go-anywhere near-full-size headphone.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5-37,000 Hz
Impedance: 32 Ω
Sensitivity: 101 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4.27ft (1.3m) + 11.5ft (3.5m) extension; Straight Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding

Big thanks to mcnoiserdc for the D1100 loan!

 



(A17) V-Moda Crossfade M-80 / V-80: re-tuned supraaural follow-up to the original Crossfade LP

V-Moda M80.jpg

Build Quality (10/10): In terms of design, the M-80 is a miniaturized version of the older Crossfade LP and more current LP2 models. As with the LP, the metal and plastic structure has an air of heft and solidity, and yet the M-80 is not heavy enough to be damaged by its own weight if dropped. In addition, unlike the high-end supraaural headphones from Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Audio-Technica, and others, there are very few moving parts to the M-80 so there is very little to go wrong. The included protective carrying case is a nice touch as well, as are the sturdy detachable cables that interface via a standard recessed 3.5mm jack. The only downside of the cloth-covered cords is a bit of microphonics when they rub against a shirt or jacket collar. I also find it a bit strange that a standard stereo cable is not included in addition to the smartphone-compatible mic/remote cords.

Comfort (7.5/10): The M-80 is a small supraaural set, and as such it sacrifices some comfort compared to the full-size Crossfade LP. While it isn’t particularly heavy or viselike, the M-80 lacks the adjustability of the Sennheiser HD25-1 and Beyerdynamic DT1350. The cups have a small range of motion – almost none at all around the vertical axis – and the metal frame is fairly rigid. As a result, the comfort of the M-80 rests almost entirely on the softness of the pads, and while the soft material does an excellent job of coping, this still makes itself known after a few hours. Those with an aversion to supraaurals can consider this fair warning.

Isolation (7.5/10): Partly due to the vented earcups and partly because the rigid structure can prevent the pads from sealing perfectly, the isolation of the M-80 is mediocre compared to some of the competition. It’s sufficient for light commuting but wouldn’t be recommended for subway or airplane use.

Sound (9/10): There are many ways to tune for consumer-friendly sound. One is to offer tons of bass and bother with little else; example: Klipsch Image One. Another is to limit the dynamic range and flatten the soundstage for an illusion of detail retrieval and loudness; example: Beats by Dre Solo. A third is to exaggerate the presentation to create faux 3D space; example: Bose AE1. There are, however, ways of appealing to consumer without offending the audiophile, and V-Moda is clearly well on the way to one such signature with the M-80. The oh-so-important low frequencies are emphasized but not overblown. The bass has good depth and plenty of power, with fairly mild mid-bass emphasis. It loses a bit of resolution at the very bottom but impact is plentiful and there is no lack of body. The presentation is smooth, even a bit soft of note. It is not the snappiest low end among high end portables – the HD25, DT1350, and ES10 are all a bit quicker – but the M-80 provides full, controlled bass without being overly aggressive. In comparison, the Sennheiser HD25-1 gives up a bit of depth for more mid-bass punch, though it still manages to stay free of bass bleed. Other mid-level portables, such as Phiaton’s MS300 and AKG’s Q460, give up even more bass depth to the M-80, and yield to the V-Modas in note thickness and power as well.

Despite the impactful low end, midrange presence is excellent – it is balanced well with the bass and never sounds overshadowed or crowded out, as is the trend with other consumer-friendly headphones. There is a hint of bass bleed and mild warmth imparted by the full low end but nothing distracting. The mids are very smooth and quite level on the whole. Note presentation is soft, without much bite, and while the M-80 loses out to the HD25-1 in resolution and isn’t the best at portraying grit, its mids are wonderfully intelligible and never edgy. Certain female vocals, for example, sound much better on the thicker, smoother, more forward M-80 than they do on the crisper HD25-1. There is an open feel to the midrange, too, and while the M-80 doesn’t perform quite as well with busy tracks as the HD25-1 does, it doesn’t get as congested as the old Crossfade LP or competitors such as the Klipsch Image One and Phiaton MS300.

Moving up into the treble, the M-80 becomes more laid-back while maintaining its smoothness. The top end is not notably recessed but it lacks the sparkle and energy of sets like the HD25-1, ATH-ES10, and AKG Q460. Cymbals lack shimmer and the sound comes across a bit less crisp overall. The general tone, too, is a touch less neutral compared to the HD25-1, and the detail and resolution are slightly lower. That said, the treble is not relaxed enough for the M-80 to be labeled dark and top-end extension is good, just as it was with the Crossfade LP. The result of all this mellowness is that the M-80 is completely non-fatiguing and extremely forgiving, but for the lower listening volumes I’m used to, I would still want more presence at the top. In most ways, the top end of the M-80 is opposite that of the HD25-1, which tends to be hot and somewhat splashy and results in some questionable timbre characteristics. All in all, I feel that the treble region is the weak point of both headphones, though for completely different reasons.

Where the M-80 is easier to split from the competition is in the presentation – for a small supraaural headphone it is very capable. Sound comes across nicely layered but not distant. The sonic space is larger than that of the Sennheiser HD25-1 and very well-rounded. The Sennheisers do separate a little better but on the whole I’d rather have the more well-rounded, more spacious soundstage of the V-Modas. Comparing the M-80 to the Klipsch Image One and Phiaton MS300 really makes the competition sound flat and congested. Even the AKG Q460, which can keep up with the M-80 as far as detail and separation go, loses out easily when it comes to soundstage depth. Of course the competent presentation of the M-80 is part of a bigger picture, one that involves good natural clarity (as opposed to clarity achieved via specific treble emphasis) and good dynamics, among other factors. And yet despite all this, the M-80 is very efficient, very easy to drive. It performs well enough without external amplification to go head to head with the HD25-1, and that’s saying something.

Value (9/10). (MSRP: $229.99; Street Price: $199) Put simply, the V-Moda M-80 is a very good portable headphone. Comfort and isolation are held back slightly by the lack of flex in the structure and semi-open design but with its ruggedized construction and few moving parts, the M-80 is compact and very sturdy. Additional features such as the (optional) customizable face plates and smartphone functionality go hand in hand with the high efficiency of the drivers and consumer-friendly sound signature. Most impressive is that the smooth, non-fatiguing sound retains a high degree of technical ability; in the IEM world, the M-80’s soul mate would be the dual-driver Fischer Audio Tandem. Clearly, this is a step in a welcome direction for V-Moda – I may miss the comfort of the circumaural Crossfade LP but I don’t miss the sound one bit. For portrayal of the midrange frequencies and soundstaging especially, the M-80 is right up there with the best of them.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 5-30,000 Hz
Impedance: 28.5 Ω
Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3 ft (.9m), single-sided, detachable; Angled Plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A

 

 


(A18) Fischer Audio Oldskool rpm 33 1/3: Striking portable woody placed above the Oldskool ’70 in Fischer’s lineup

Fischer Audio Oldskool 33 1-3.jpg

Build Quality (6.5/10): The 33 1/3 is a compact supraaural headphone with a flat-folding, collapsible structure. It is very similar in construction to MEElec’s HT-21, seemingly sharing all of the same external bits except for the cups. Like the HT-21, the Oldskool sacrifices some solidity for its light weight and extremely portable design. It features the same thicker-than-average, single-sided cable and 45-degree 3.5mm plug. Aside from the metal inner headband, the only non-plastic part is the wooden insert on the rectangular cups, which features an engraved winged ‘F’ and a stylized model name. The engraving quality is fantastic, which makes the plastic outer structure just a bit disappointing, but the rpm 33 1/3 does hold the honor of being one of the most lightweight headphones in its class as a result.

Comfort (9.5/10): While the headband pad is identical to that of the HT-21, the earcup padding is of the flat (non-doughnut) variety a-la Sennheiser's HD238. The pleather and stuffing are extremely soft and the light weight of the headphones makes the thin headband pad a non-issue. Clamping force is very low and the multi-axis folding system allows the 33 1/3 to conform to the wearer’s ears comfortably at all times. The only potential issue is the headband length, which might rule the 33 1/3 out for those with larger heads.

Isolation (5.5/10): Being a small supraaural headphone, the rpm 33 1/3 is hardly noise-isolating despite the closed-back design. Much of the isolation is traded off for comfort with these. Leakage is still reduced significantly compared to most open sets but they are best used in low noise environments

Sound (8.5/10): While the original Fischer Audio Oldskool pursues a crisp and aggressive sound, the 33 1/3 is radically different, offering up a darker, smoother signature. For a tiny on-ear portable with a plasticky outer structure, it sounds remarkably mature and refined. The bass is good – clean and punchy, but not overly aggressive or dominant. The note presentation is on the soft side, resulting in full, rounded bass notes and a smooth, liquid sound. The low end is similar in depth and quantity to that of the AKG Q460, beating out the Phiaton MS300 and lagging just behind the V-Moda M-80. Compared to the Oldskool ’70, the rpm 33 1/3 sounds warmer and fuller, with better bass depth and more realistic note thickness. The Oldskool ’70 sounds a touch quicker and more crisp, but the rpm 33 1/3 is clearly the more natural-sounding of the two.

The midrange is neutral-to-warm, with good detail and a lush, full character. While the bass is punchy, the mids are not at all recessed and barely affected by the low end. The V-Moda M-80 does bleed a touch less but both sets have clean, smooth mids. Like the pricier M-80, the 33 1/3 manages to impress with its clarity and transparency without sacrificing note thickness, as Sennheiser’s HD428 and Superlux’s HD66B tend to do. It also doesn’t push the mids forward to create an illusion of greater detail and presence, again unlike the HD428 and AKG’s Q460. Compared to the Oldskool ’70, the mids of the rpm 33 1/3 are warmer and fuller, maintaining similar detail levels without sounding thin or aggressive and making the ’70 sound grainy and a touch cold in tone.

At the top end, the 33 1/3 is again smooth and refined. The treble is not at all peaky but at the same time doesn’t sound recessed when the headphones are properly driven, offering up a bit more sparkle and air compared to the V-Moda M-80. Treble clarity and detail are on-par with the brighter Oldskool ’70 and ahead of the Phiaton MS300 but the real strength is the realism of the top end, with the 33 1/3 beating all but the M-80 in timbre. The same can be said for the presentation – while the 33 1/3 lacks the imaging and layering of the M-80, it beats most of the competition handily. The sound is a bit laid-back, as expected, but far from overly distant. While the soundstage is not particularly big, it is very well-rounded, revealing just how poor the depth of the Oldskool ’70’s presentation is.

A note on powering the Fischers – despite the high rated impedance, high sensitivity allows them to be driven reasonably with portable players. However, they do scale up quite well and just don’t sound as impressive as they should at lower volumes, leaning towards a darker tonality and a duller, less detailed, and less dynamic sound. Driver by a Cowon J3, the 33 1/3 doesn’t come alive until around 50% of maximum output – quite high compared to most portables and about double that of its lower sibling, the ’70.

 

Value (8/10). (MSRP: $129.00, Street Price: N/A) The Fischer Audio Oldskool 33 1/3 is a retro-styled on-ear headphone with a smooth and pleasant sound signature. Admittedly, it is not all things to all people – the 33 1/3 isn’t a rugged, highly isolating DJ headphone. It isn’t a good match for bass junkies or those looking for sparkly, emphasized treble. It isn’t aggressive or analytical. What it is, is an extremely compact and comfortable supraaural designed for casual listening. The sound is clean and detailed, with a slight tilt towards the bass and midrange, and scales well with proper equipment. Its design is unobtrusive and – even with the engravings – unassuming. Keeping in mind that it can sound a touch boring at lower listening volumes, the 33 1/3 is certainly one of the more capable performers in its weight and price class and a great example of what portable Hi-Fi is all about, making it easy to focus on the music and forget the headphones are even there.


Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 15 - 22,000 Hz
Impedance: 164 Ω
Sensitivity: 114 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4ft (1.2m), single-sided; 45º plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(A19) Skullcandy Mix Master: Skullcandy’s flagship offering, developed in collaboration with American DJ Mix Master Mike.

Skullcandy Mix Master Mike.jpg

Build Quality (8/10): The design of the Mix Masters is flashy, but functional. Skullcandy / MMM logos are overabundant and glossy plastics are used throughout, making the Mix Masters a fingerprint magnet, but the hinge and headband design allow them to look rather sleek on the head compared to most DJ sets. They don’t have the solid feel or wear-resistant finish of most Pro-oriented headphones but the competition doesn’t carry Skullcandy's lifetime warranty, either. In addition to a carrying case, cleaning cloth, and 1/4" adapter, the Mix Master comes with two cables - one for studio applications and one for use on the go. The heavy-duty studio cable is coiled and features threading on the headphone end for secure attachment. The portable cable is straight, ~4.5’ in length, and features an iPhone-compatible 3-button mic/remote unit. Other features include a dual-state mute button – a feature I’ve previously only seen on Noise Cancelling headphones – as well as a unique feature dubbed ‘Cue Control’, which automatically mixes stereo into mono when one of the earcups is rotated for single-ear monitoring.

Comfort (7.5/10): Perhaps the most striking design feature of the Mix Masters is the padding – the earcup pads are extremely soft and the smooth black imitation leather is offset nicely by white stitching. Headband padding is generous as well and the headphones are designed for a snug fit. Clamping force is slightly above average but the cups articulate in all directions to accommodate different head shapes and sizes. Unfortunately the pads are a little too soft for the depth of the earcups – my ears press against the hard plastic grilles and long-term comfort isn’t what it could be. Using a bit of cotton to bolster the pads from below helped, making the Mix Master comfortable for hours.

Isolation (7/10): When it comes to isolation the Mix Master behaves more like a semi-open headphone, blocking out less noise than most DJ-oriented circumaurals. It doesn’t leak too badly and should isolate well enough for use while commuting but definitely won’t work on a plane or subway.

Sound (8/10): The only Skullcandy products I’ve previously owned were their sub-$100 in-ears, and the Mix Master - happily - doesn't sound like any of them. It is a forward headphone with hard-hitting bass and prominent mids. In a word, the sound of the Mix Masters is aggressive. The bass is solid, with good depth and decent definition. Punch is plentiful – the Mix Masters hit harder than the Sennheiser HD25s and V-Moda M-80s. The low end certainly is intense but could stand to be a little quicker – the resolution isn’t nearly as poor as with the Beats by Dre Studios but it loses out to the other higher-tier DJ cans in my collection. Still, the Mix Master sounds neither boomy nor muddy while delivering more than enough impact for any application.

The midrange of the Mix Masters is also forward and comes across emphasized nearly as much as the low end. The balance keeps the tone neutral, preventing significant bass bleed and suppressing almost all of the warmth one would expect with such heavy bass. The detail level is surprisingly good, accentuated by the forward positioning of the midrange and the somewhat compressed dynamics of the headphone. Both detail and clarity are superior to the best mid-tier sets such as the Beyerdynamic DT235 but don’t quite keep up with higher-end sets like the Sennheiser HD25-1 and Ultrasone HFI-780.

The lower treble of the Mix Masters is prominent enough but the response rolls off gently at the top. Overall balance is actually rather good and the tone is close to neutral. The Mix Master doesn’t exaggerate sibilance but the notes are a little hard-edged and lack the refinement of higher-end sets like the Ultrasone PRO 750. The resolution is better than that of consumer-oriented headphones such as the Phiaton MS400 but not quite up there with the Ultrasones or the Sennheiser HD25, either. The Mix Master was clearly designed to work well with modern recordings – a purpose that suits it very well.

Because the sound of the Mix Master is so forward and aggressive, the soundstage appears below average in size and lacking in depth. The Mix Master is resolving enough not to sound congested but all of the spatial cues are delivered upfront. The poor depth is reminiscent of the Phiaton MS300 and Sennheiser HD25 but even the HD25 - which is not exactly known for soundstaging prowess - is on the whole less forward than the Mix Master. Part of the problem are the mediocre dynamics of the Skullcandies – great for pushing detail into the foreground but not so good for realistic imaging. That said, coupled with the extreme efficiency of the Mix Master, the presentation and compressed dynamics actually compensate for the average isolation of the headphone and allow them to work better in noisy environments.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $299.95; Street Price: $300) There is no getting around the fact that Skullcandy's Mix Master is a pricy proposition - at $300 it is dearer than many popular DJ and studio-oriented offerings from established Pro Audio brands, but then it is one of the most feature-rich products out there. Built-in mute functions, Cue Control, and ambidextrous cable input are all excellent additions for DJ use, and then there is Skullcandy's lifetime replacement warranty - something no competitor can match. The Mix Master also has the makings of a great mainstream headphone, producing plenty of quality bass and meshing well with modern recordings. It is one of the most efficient full-size headphones I’ve tried, reaching dangerous output levels easily with a portable player, and compensates for its average noise isolation with aggressive sound delivery. In terms of absolute audio quality, it doesn't quite stack up to expectations set by the price - the overall balance is quite good and the bass impact, clarity, and detail levels don't disappoint but soundstaging is a weakness, hindered in large part by mediocre dynamics. Still, the Mix Master is the first celebrity-endorsed headphone I can listen to all day and is easy to recommend for professionals interested in its unique feature set and consumers with pro audio aspirations.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 19 Ω
Sensitivity: N/A
Cord: 4.5ft (1.4m), I-plug or 5’ (1.5m) Coiled, L-Plug, single-sided (ambidextrous), detachable
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

A full Mix Master review, complete with more photos, can be found here.
 


 

(A20) Klipsch Image One: smartphone-oriented portable headphone from Klipsch

 

 

Build Quality (7/10): The Image One is a semi-circumaural headphone, with cups that will fit over some ears but not others. It is similar to the Phiaton MS400 in size and construction – mostly plastic, but with a metal inner headband. Unlike the Phiatons, the Image One is not collapsible, and yet its structure somehow feels looser and flimsier. The cabling is a bit above average in thickness but plasticky and kink-prone.


Comfort (7.5/10): The Klipschs are small and lightweight, with soft and supple padding all around. The cup size will be an issue for some – they are definitely not large enough to be considered circumaural. A larger issue is the lack of flexibility to the structure – the flat-folding cups don’t rotate far enough to conform to the ear.

Isolation (7/10): Isolation is decent but not great – the Image One is closed but the odd sizing of the cups and lack of flexibility make it a bit difficult to maintain a seal.

Sound (7/10): It is not unexpected for a company’s first headphone to sound a bit rough around the edges but I was still surprised at the word ‘bloated’ showing up in every single one of my listening impressions with the Image One. The bass of the Klipsch is boosted significantly over the midrange – so much so that I won’t hesitate to call it one of the bassiest portables I’ve heard. Subbass presence is good and overall bass power is immense – not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic considering the result. The ever-present low end of Image One ends up sounding muddy, bloated, and unrefined. The Bowers & Wilkins P3, with its warm, punchy signature, sounds cleaner and tighter than the Image One and comes across rather well-balanced in comparison. Even the notoriously bassy Denon D1100 – admittedly a much larger headphone – maintains better clarity, a more neutral signature, and lower levels of bass bleed than the Image One. The story is the same with the Audio-Technica ES10, which has nearly as much bass punch but exponentially more control, the V-Moda M-80, the Phiaton MS300, the AKG Q460, and the Sennheiser HD428. In all cases the Image One is simply overwhelmed by its bass and lacks the finesse necessary to compete with other Hi-Fi portables.

The midrange of the Image One is recessed compared to the bass but the sonic image is pushed forward on the whole by the lack of a proper soundstage. There is a lot of bass bleed and the tone is quite warm – warmer, for example, than that of the Denon D1100. Instruments and vocals don’t sound very natural due to the exaggeration of lower frequencies and detail levels are average at best due to the lack of definition.

The recession worsens into the treble – the Image One definitely doesn’t have enough energy up top to balance out the sound. The resulting tonal slant is somewhat dark – more so than the B&W P3 and Denon D1100 – and the Image One seems grainy compared to the silky-smooth V-Moda M-80. Overall realism isn’t helped by the forward and aggressive presentation of the Image One. There’s really not much of a soundstage – both width and depth are below average in the price range and the imaging of both Denon D1100 and V-Moda M-80 sounds nothing short of holographic compared to the Klipsch. Instrument separation, too, is nothing impressive with the bass-heavy Image One.

Value (6/10). (MSRP: $149.99; Street Price: $100) Bass of this magnitude could have set the Image One apart from most other portables if not for its sub-par quality and general obnoxiousness. Pretty much everything is thrown under the train in pursuit of bass impact, resulting in a warm and powerful - but ultimately disappointing - sound. Similarly, the construction is mediocre for the price and the fit lacks flexibility. All in all, I can see merit in the Image One if bass and portability are the only concerns. Otherwise, a Sony XB500 or AKG K81DJ would surely make a better buy.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 16-23,000 Hz
Impedance: 36 Ω
Sensitivity: 110 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 4.67ft (1.4m); Straight Plug; w/mic and 3-button remote
Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, case included

 

 

 

(A21) Bowers & Wilkins P3: the smaller and even more portable sibling of B&W’s P5 headphone
 

1000

 

Build Quality (8.5/10): Whereas the higher-end P5 is swathed in luxurious leather, the smaller and lighter P3 is more utilitarian with its patterned cloth padding and rubberized plastics. Unlike the P5, the P3 is collapsible, though the addition of hinges does means that the detachable cable is no longer single-sided. Construction quality remains impressive– all of the moving parts are metal and there is no play in the structure. The 2.5mm cable connectors are hidden underneath the magnetically-attached pads and the zigzagging cable route acts as a strain relief of sorts. Both a stereo cable and mic/3-button remote cord are included. The thickness of the cable is a little disappointing next to similarly-priced V-Moda and Sennheiser headphones but the overall construction can give any other small portable headphone out there a run for its money.

Comfort (9.5/10): The P3 is a small supraaural headphone. The cloth pads fit flat against the ear and breathe well, though the cushioning is not quite as soft and supple as the leather padding of the P5 and the headband is not nearly as plush. To compensate, B&W made the fit looser, which allowed the P3 to remain comfortable for prolonger wear but somewhat compromised the secure fit and isolation compared to the P5.

Isolation (7.5/10): Isolation is slightly lacking – the larger, softer, better-sealing pads of the P5 provided good isolation but the noise-blocking abilities of the P3 are average at best. There is also a bit of leakage of sound into the environment.

Sound (7.5/10): By now it is clear that Bowers & Wilkins has established a house sound for their headphones and earphones—the B&W products I have heard are generally warm and smooth, with enhanced bass and relaxed treble. The P3 follows this without misstep. There is not much emphasis in the sub-bass region responsible for depth and rumble but mid- and upper bass are boosted heavily, providing plentiful impact. Bass control is surprisingly good – despite its weight, the punch is tight and accurate. Comparing the P3 to the Klipsch Image One makes the bass of the Klipsch unit sound a lot more bloated and intrusive.

Unfortunately the upper bass of the P3 comes across a bit too strong much of the time, crowding out the midrange and reducing the overall clarity of the headphones. There is also a slight lack of dynamics apparent with many good recordings. The relative tightness of the bass does help, but the P3 never quite manages to deliver the same sort of effortlessly clean sound that the V-Moda M-80 or Sennheiser HD25-1 can put out.

The midrange is detailed, pleasantly warm, and has a thick, fleshed-out note. It is prominent enough to ensure that vocals and instruments are heard clearly and keeps veiling to a minimum. Unfortunately, the mids lose some of their potential to the upper bass emphasis and mediocre dynamics. Clarity is only average for headphones of this caliber – clearly not up the standard set by the V-Moda or Sennheiser offerings.

The treble is a touch laid-back on the whole and rolls off gently at the top. This means that the P3 does not introduce any harshness and even acts to cut down on sibilance already present on recordings. It is not a revealing headphone, but then it was clearly tuned for an inoffensive, consumer-friendly sound. Those who like their treble bright, crisp, and sparkly will be disappointed – the P3 lacks the top-end energy of sets such as the AKG Q460 and Sennheiser HD25-1.

The presentation of the P3 is a bit laid-back. The headphone isn’t dynamic enough to portray distance or space very well and the lack of crispness means that the imaging is never very precise. Instruments are reasonably well-separated but the sonic image of the P3 is a little flat and the presentation lacks the openness more dynamic sets such as the V-Moda M-80 are capable of conveying, sounding a little closed-in and confined.

Value (7/10). (MSRP: $199.99; Street Price: $199) The Bowers & Wilkins P3 is a luxury gadget for the iPhone crowd, offering a combination of style, comfort, and portability, all solidly-constructed and draped in B&W pedigree. Those who purchase it for fidelity, however, may be left disappointed—the P3 imposes its own peculiar coloration on music to a greater extent than the higher-end P5 model does. It is far from transparent to source, instead pursuing a warm and smooth sound signature tuned to appeal to the general consumer. That said, consumers who are willing to pay a premium for the combination of aesthetics and functionality will find the P3 to be a non-fatiguing, punchy headphone that works well in portable applications.

Manufacturer Specs:
Frequency Response: 10-20,000 Hz
Impedance: 34 Ω
Sensitivity: 111 dB SPL/1mW
Cord: 3.94ft (1.2m), detachable; Straight plug
Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible

 

 

 

(A22) Denon DN-HP1000: Flagship DJ headphone from Denon, priced to compete with DJ heavy hitters such as the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 and Pioneer HDJ-1000. It is a rebrand of the Audio-Technica PRO700.

 

 

Build Quality (8.5/10): Built like a typical DJ headphone, the HP1000 is made mostly out of hard and heavy plastic with the exception of the grilles, which are metal inserts. The outside of the earcups is rubberized. Like most DJ headphones in its price range, the HP1000 is both flat-folding and collapsible and comes with a long and thick coiled cord. The construction feels solid and should be nearly bulletproof in consumer applications but fails to match the ATH-M50 and some of the pricier DJ headphones out there in fit and finish.

 

Comfort (8/10): The Denons clamp very lightly but stay on securely due to their weight and circumaural fit. Padding on the headband is mediocre and doesn’t provide the long-term comfort of other DJ headphones. The earcup pads also feel a bit flat compared to those of the M50, bottoming out on my ears. Fortunately the low clamping force prevents this from severely diminishing comfort and also stops the HP1000 from becoming overly sweaty during lengthy listening sessions.

 

Isolation (7/10): Isolation is decent but not great for a large circumaural DJ headphone due to the stiff pads and low clamping force. They will tone down some outside noise but I wouldn’t use them on a plane. Leakage is minimal.

 

Sound (7.75/10): Expecting an upgrade to the rather well-balanced and extremely clear-sounding DN-HP700 model, I was surprised to find a rather bass-heavy and oftentimes muddy headphone in the DN-HP1000. The bass of the HP1000 is boosted and can become boomy and overbearing on some recordings. Worse than that, it lacks the resolution necessary for proper detailing and sounds loose and unrefined in comparison to similarly-priced sets such as the Audio-Technica M50 and Ultrasone HFI-780. The cheaper DN-HP700 model has lower bass quantity and much better control for a tighter, cleaner low end. Bassheads will be better served by Denon’s consumer-oriented D1100 model, which has similar bass depth but greater impact than the HP1000 and boasts a warmer tonal character.

 

The midrange of the HP1000 offers up good clarity and detail levels to match the lower-end HP700 model, but only when the bass stays out of the way. Bass bleed is minimized by the forwardness of the midrange - the Ultrasone HFI-780, for example, has tighter, more accurate bass and cleaner, more resolving mids but sounds rather mid-recessed in comparison to the HP1000. The upper mids remain reasonably smooth but don’t lose presence as those of the Ultrasone HFI-450 and Hercules G501 do. Treble extension is average but the top end is crisp without sounding grainy. Treble quantity lags slightly behind the HFI-780 and Sennheiser HD25, allowing the HP1000 to be a touch more forgiving of sibilance as a result. Soundstaging is above average, making the supraaural Sennheiser HD25-1 sound congested and severely lacking in depth in comparison. The muddy bass doesn’t do the HP1000 any favors but overall the presentation is dynamic enough to get by.  

 

Value (6.5/10). (MSRP: $199.99; Street Price: $159) The DN-HP1000 retains the slightly sub-par ergonomics of the lower-end DN-HP700 model and manages to lose a chunk of the audio quality of the cheaper headphone. The bass is the biggest transgressor, sounding noticeably boomy and uncontrolled. Those looking for heavy bass will want to consider Denon’s consumer-oriented D1100 model in place of the HP1000. For everyone else, the cheaper and more accurate HP700 retains my recommendation.

 

Manufacturer Specs:

Frequency Response: 5-33,000 Hz

Impedance: 36 Ω

Sensitivity: 105 dB SPL/1mW

Cord: 3.91ft (1.2m) single-sided, coiled; Straight Plug

Space-Saving Mechanism: Flat-folding, collapsible

 

 

 

(A23) Munitio PRO40 

 

 

MSRP: $349.99 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $200 from amazon.com

Frequency Response: 12-20,000 Hz | Impedance: 32 Ω | Sensitivity: 102 dB SPL/1mW
Form factor: over-the-ear | Space-Saving Mechanism: N/A
Cord: detachable, 4ft (1.2m) straight | 8ft (2.4m) coiled

Build Quality (10/10): The construction of the PRO40 impresses right out of the box – the headphones are built largely out of a durable aluminum alloy and the few parts that aren’t, are made of hard, sturdy plastic. The rubber headband pad and pleather earcups are soft and pleasant to the touch. The 3.5mm jack is located on the left earcup and the headphone comes with two interchangeable cords – a nylon-sheathed portable-length cable with microphone and 3-button remote, and a long coiled cable with ¼” adapter for studio use (note: the coiled cable will not be included in the box with the first batch of the headphones, but will be available to customers at no additional charge via the Munitio website). Both cables are very well-made, utilizing high-grade materials and a design that shows good attention to detail. The headphones also come with a very sturdy hard-shell carrying case.

Comfort (8.5/10): Despite the bulletproof construction, the PRO40 is not a heavy headphone and fits on the head very securely thanks to what Munitio calls CODA AXIS technology – a mechanism that affords the earcup a wide range of motion independent of the rest of the headphone. The same mechanism keeps the headphones comfortable, though the protein leather earpads can get a touch warm with extended wear.

Isolation (8/10): The soft pads and adjustable fit provide a good seal between headphone and ear. Isolation is above average and noise leakage is average for a headphone of this size.

Sound (7.75/10): Not unlike Munitio’s in-ear earphones, the company’s first full-size headphone delivers smooth sound underpinned by powerful bass. The bass response of the titanium-coated drivers used in the PRO40 beats everything I’ve heard since the Denon AH-D1100 in quantity, boasting both great impact and depth. The PRO40 sounds bassier than the vTrue model from subwoofer manufacturer Velodyne, and much bassier than the V-Moda M-80.

Some bloat is to be expected considering the bass quantity, but on the whole the PRO40 holds up rather well. Its bass tends to be more intrusive in comparison to the Velodyne and V-Moda sets but remains tighter and more controlled than that of the Klipsch’s Image One, another bass-heavy portable headphone. The midrange of the PRO40 gives up some clarity and prominence as a result of the bass emphasis but has a rich, warm tone and still maintains better resolution compared to many other enhanced-bass models. The mids are thick enough that they don’t get crowded out, avoiding the type of heavy midrange veiling that plagues many other headphones of this type.

The top end of the PRO40 is relaxed, but not as rolled off as with the Monoprice 8323 or the classic Sony MDR-V6. The sound is smooth and forgiving, with treble presence about on-par with my V-Moda M-80, but much bigger bass. The Monoprice 8323, for example, sounds quite dull and lacking in dynamics next to the Munitio set and the Denon D1100 isn’t as smooth. The presentation of the PRO40, too, is a little more even than with the Denon set. Whereas the D1100 has a well-layered but intimate presentation, the PRO40 is less forward and a little more versatile. Worth noting also is the high sensitivity of the headphone – the PRO40 is very easy to drive and reaches high volumes as easily with my phone as it does with the HiFiMan HM-901 or a desktop amp.

Value (7.5/10): The Munitio PRO40 is quick to impress with superb build quality and a compliant, comfortable fit. The headphones boast a much better construction than similarly-priced sets such as the Skullcandy Mix Master and Audio-Technica ES10, and back it with a 2-year warranty. The sound loses a bit of refinement to the enhanced bass but is fun and capable all around. Overall, the PRO40 is a good bass-heavy headphone with bulletproof construction, and a great full-size adaptation of Munitio’s in-ear earphones.

 

 

(A24) Creative Aurvana Live! 2

 


Brief: second generation of Creative’s highly-regarded Aurvana Live!

MSRP: $129.99 (manufacturer’s page
Current Price: $127 from amazon.com

Frequency Response: 10-30,000 Hz | Impedance: 32 Ω | Sensitivity: 106dB SPL/1mW
Form factor: over-the-ear | Space-Saving Mechanism: flat-folding
Cord: detachable, 4ft (1.2m) straight w/mic, 1-button remote, and analog volume control

Build Quality (8/10): The original Creative Aurvana Live! has been a budget-friendly audiophile favorite for as long as I can remember not only for its sound, but also its light weight and outstanding comfort. It was never considered a particularly tough headphone, though, and the story is much the same with the new version – mostly plastic parts with a metal headband. The cups are a little thicker compared to the first-gen model, largely due to the way they attach to the headband, but overall, I like the aesthetic of the new CAL! better.  The construction also feels a little more solid in the hand, with no shakes or rattles despite the fact that it has more moving parts due to its ability to fold flat for transport and storage.

The CAL! 2 boasts a detachable cable with a 2.5mm connector at the earcup end. While I would have preferred the more common 3.5mm, I’m glad it’s not a proprietary connector and quality replacements won’t be difficult to come by. The stock cable is flat in cross-section and has an inline mic and remote, as well as an analog volume control. The remote and microphone are split up into two separate modules, with the mic located a few inches higher up on the cable than the remote for better voice capture. The analog volume control slider means volume control functionality not only with iPods and iPhones but with most Android and Windows Mobile devices as well.

Comfort (9.5/10): The official product shots of the new CAL! 2 make it look bulkier and heavier compared to the original CAL! but I am pleased to say that the new headphone stays very true to its predecessor on the comfort front. The plastic structure keeps the weight very low, the cups are nice and deep, and the memory foam pads have a large internal diameter. All this yet again makes the Aurvana an absolute standout in wearing comfort, easily the most comfortable portable circumaural headphone in my possession. The only negative, and it is a small one, is that the protein leather earpads can get a little warm with extended wear.

Isolation (6/10): Though leakage is rather low, the passive isolation of CAL! 2 is not great for a closed headphone – enough to make it usable outside, certainly, but not great for noisy environments.

Sound (8.25/10): Listening to the CAL! 2 makes it clear that Creative has chosen not to mess with a good thing too much when it comes to sound. The CAL! 2 is a warm-sounding headphone with impactful bass, its sound a little shifted towards the low end compared to the original Aurvana. Denon did the same thing with their AH-D1100 model in comparison to the previous AH-D1001, but the result there was a monster with more bass than I could tolerate. The CAL! 2 keeps its composure better – it’s a bassy headphone, but not overwhelmingly so.

The midrange of the CAL! 2 drops off somewhat in emphasis and is well warmed-up by the prominent bass. Impressively, midrange clarity is similar to the rather thin-sounding Sennheiser HD428, which has very little bass in comparison to the Aurvana Live! 2. The Aurvana is also clearer and more detailed compared to the recently-reviewed Rock-It Sounds R-DJ despite having stronger and deeper bass, but gives up some clarity to the much more expensive – and significantly brighter – Monster DNA Pro.

The CAL! 2 remains smooth and relaxed through the upper midrange and treble. The top end doesn’t come back up to the level set by the bass for that v-shaped sound signature, instead providing a very inoffensive listening experience somewhat lacking in treble energy. The treble is smoother compared to the R-DJ, HD428, and DNA Pro. As a result, the CAL! 2 is very tolerant of sibilance, harshness, and poor mastering – out of the headphones I’ve tried recently only to the Velodyne vTrue can compete in this respect. There is no chance the CAL! 2 will sound fatiguing to anyone, though the smoothness and lack of a prominent midrange may encourage higher listening volumes.

The presentation of the CAL! 2 is good, especially compared to the vast majority of on-ear headphones. It gives up a little bit of soundstage width to the R-DJ and the heavy bass can be a touch detrimental to overall imaging but overall, for a bass-heavy headphone, the CAL! 2 is plenty spacious.

Select Comparisons

Monster DNA  ($150)

A warm-sounding headphone with surprisingly strong mids, the DNA is Monster’s answer to the Beats by Dre Solo following the Beats/Monster breakup. Though it is a small on-ear portable, the DNA is a better signature match for the CAL! 2 than the circumaural DNA Pro. It doesn’t quite have the sound quality to compete with the Aurvana, though, sounding muddier despite its forward mids. The CAL! 2 has more emphasis on the low end but its bass is tighter compared to that of the DNA. The bass-centric balance of the Creative set does have an effect on the mids, which sound a little veiled and recessed but still more natural compared to the DNA. At the top neither headphone has great energy or sparkle but the DNA has a much smaller soundstage, sounding consistently congested thanks to its forward, aggressive sound signature.

V-Moda Crossfade LP2 ($200)

The Crossfade LP2 is V-Moda’s enhanced-bass headphone, complimenting the more audiophile-oriented Crossfade M-80 and M-100 models. Compared the Creative Aurvana Live! 2, it is significantly bassier, boasting more mid-bass impact and sub-bass slam. Considering that the Creative set is not bass-light by any measure, this shows just how powerful the bass is on the V-Moda set. The LP2 pays the price, however, with audibly greater bass bloat and mids that appear somewhat muffled compared to the CAL! 2. The Aurvana sounds significantly cleaner in comparison. Both have somewhat subdued treble but the Crossfade LP2 also suffers from a slightly more congested presentation.

V-Moda M-80 ($200)

Though the M-80 is a compact on-ear headphone, it is the only warm-sounding set in my collection that could compete with the CAL! 2 in sound quality, making for a worthwhile comparison. The M-80 is a rather balanced headphone but still has stronger bass and mids relative to its top end, giving it a warm overall tone. The CAL! 2 places more emphasis on its bass and less emphasis on its midrange, sounding a little recessed there compared to the pricier M-80. Clarity is mostly similar between the two headphones – on bass-light tracks I thought he CAL! had an advantage but as soon as its big low end came into play the more prominent mids of the M-80 suddenly won out. The mids comprise most of the difference between these two headphones; stepping away from the midrange, bass control is better on the M-80 while the CAL! 2 is a little more spacious in presentation.

Velodyne vTrue ($279)

Velodyne’s flagship is an enhanced-bass headphone that seems to be tuned similarly to the new Aurvana – smooth, warm, and certainly not light on the low end. Like the Aurvana, it is a large, closed over-ear headphone that is intended for use both at home and on the go. Compared to the CAL! 2, the vTrue has fatter, more boomy bass and sounds warmer overall. Its midrange is more forward but unlike that of the M-80, it is also thicker compared to the CAL! 2 and sounds less clear as a result. The Aurvana Live! 2 is clearer and also has a little more treble energy than the vTrue, as a result sounding more balanced and refined overall compared to the Velodyne. Both have good soundstage width with spacious presentations, a necessity with all that bass in order to avoid congestion a-la V-Moda Crossfade LP2.

Value (8.5/10): Six years after the release of the original Aurvana Live!, Creative has given the headphone a redesign with the Aurvana Live! 2. The CAL! 2 delivers a warm and lush sound with plenty of bass and good clarity. It may not be the best headphone for accuracy, but it has the perfect consumer sound – warm, impactful, and smooth even at high volumes. It’s also one of my favorites for wearing comfort, thanks to the spacious ear cups and the extremely light weight and, as before, the price is right, with similarly-performing headphones from other big-name brands easily running into the $200 range and higher. The original CAL! is still a great choice, especially as it’s often discounted, but as a bassier option competing with the many enhanced-bass headphones on the market, the new CAL! 2 has a lot going for it.

 

 

 

(A25) Monster DNA Pro Over-Ear

 



 

 

Brief: The newly-released big brother of the Monster Cable DNA on-ears

MSRP: $299.95 (manufacturer’s page)
Current Price: $250 from amazon.com

Frequency Response: N/A | Impedance: N/A | Sensitivity: N/A
Form factor: over-the-ear | Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible
Cord: detachable, est. 6ft (1.8m) coiled + 4ft (1.2m) straight w/mic & 3-button remote

Build Quality (9/10): The DNA Pro is made mostly of thick plastic with metal reinforcement of the headband below the hinge. It shares the triangular design of the other sets in the DNA line, though the aesthetic is more striking on the larger DNA Pro. The earcup pads are of excellent quality; the rubber pad on the headband less so, but still adequate. The DNA Pro boasts a detachable cable with a slightly recessed 3.5mm plug. It has ambidextrous cable connectors, so the cord can be plugged in on either side of the headphone. The remaining jack can be used to “daisy chain” a second headphone to the DNA Pro in order to share a signal. The stock cable of the DNA Pro is coiled, but still lightweight enough to be used portably. A straight headset cable with mic and 3-button remote is also included.

Comfort (7.5/10): The cups of the DNA Pro are deep, easily encompassing the entire ear. The triangular shape of the pads works well and the imitation leather is soft and smooth. However, the earcups don’t have quite as much freedom of movement as I would like and, for me at least, seal better at the bottom than at the top. In addition, the headphones are a bit on the heavy side and create a pressure point at the very top of my head – not a big deal, but noticeable compared, for example, to the more lightweight Creative Aurvana Live! 2.

Isolation (8/10): The passive noise isolation is quite good as long as the cups are sealed around the ear – on-par with most DJ-style headphones.

Sound (8.5/10): One may expect Monster’s flagship over-ear headphone to follow in the footsteps of Beats by Dre or offer a logical progression to the warm and bassy sound of the less expensive DNA on-ear. However, the DNA Pro is a different beast altogether. Its tuning focuses on clarity and resolution, and the resulting sound signature is brighter than I had anticipated.

The DNA Pro is not a bass-heavy headphone. The bass is present and not lacking in punch, especially at higher volumes, but the slightly v-shaped overall response of the headphone is tilted up, in favor of the treble, instead of down towards the low end. Bass extension is good – deeper, for example, than with the Sennheiser HD428. Bass control is even better- the bass is much tighter compared to that of the Creative Aurvana Live! 2, Velodyne vTrue, and most other mainstream headphones in the price range.

The excellent bass control and bright tonal tilt afford the DNA Pro no veiling whatsoever in the midrange. The Sennheiser HD428 is noticeably veiled in comparison, the CAL! 2 even more so. The overall response is a little v-shaped, but the mids aren’t particularly recessed, just lacking some fullness at the bottom. The upper midrange and treble of the DNA Pro have plenty of energy.

In comparison to the brighter DNA Pro, the Sennheiser HD428 and CAL! 2 sound smoother through the upper midrange and top end and both – but especially the Creative unit – appear to be almost too laid-back at the top. Due to its treble energy, the DNA Pro sounds best to me at low to moderate volumes. Its sound is detailed and technically very proficient, just a little off tonally compared to what I consider neutral. The presentation, likewise, is very capable, with good width and no congestion, but a more balanced response would provide a slight improvement in imaging and overall dynamics.

Select Comparisons

Monster DNA On-Ear ($150)

The new DNA Pro provides a listening experience very different from that of the On-Ear DNA model – a clearer, tighter sound that is probably less well-suited for the average consumer (which at least partly justifies the “Pro” label). The on-ear DNA has a bassier, warmer sound but isn’t recessed in the midrange. Nonetheless, its boomy bass has a strong tendency to muffle the mids. The DNA Pro is much clearer and has tighter bass. It also sounds more v-shaped in comparison to the DNA. Its treble is significantly brighter, but also cleaner and more crisp next to the smoother, more forgiving on-ear DNA. Tonally, it’s hard to say whether the brighter, colder DNA Pro is more natural than the warm and smooth DNA, but the Pro model certainly has more of the things we normally associate with higher-end headphones – clarity, sonic space, and detail resolution.

V-Moda Crossfade LP2 ($200)

V-Moda’s DJ-oriented Crossfade LP2 headphone is warm and very bassy – an extreme contrast to the Monster DNA Pro. The LP2 is much bassier, with a low end extends deeper and produces sub-bass notes with greater authority. However, the bass is also much more intrusive. This makes the overall sound – especially vocals – extremely muddy in comparison to the DNA Pro. The Monster set, on the other hand, has much tighter – albeit lower in quantity – bass and significantly clearer, more resolving sound. Tonally, the LP2 is much darker than the DNA Pro, lacking all of the sparkle and most of the treble energy of the latter. The presentation of the DNA Pro is more impressive mostly due to the lack of congestion-causing bass boom. In terms of actual sonic space, the pricier Monster headphones aren’t far ahead.

Sennheiser HD25-1 II ($200)

Sennheier’s DJ-oriented HD-25-1 II is more similar in form factor the on-ear DNA, but the DNA Pro is closer in performance. In comparison to the DNA Pro, the HD25-1 has more emphasized, slightly boomier bass. Its mids are more recessed and end up sounding a little muffled. The DNA Pro has its tighter bass and clearer midrange, but the upper midrange and treble emphasis causes vocals to sound more nasal on it and the brighter tonality often appears less natural overall. The HD25-1 is tonally darker, but its top end is still splashier compared to the DNA Pro, so in the end neither set wins in treble quality. The DNA Pro has a wider presentation – the HD25 is more similar to the on-ear DNA in that regard.

Value (8/10): The Monster DNA Pro is a clear-sounding headphone with very controlled bass and a somewhat bright tonal tilt. This makes it not only unique in its class, but also the best-sounding headphone I’ve heard from Monster. Sound aside, the DNA Pro loses a bit of ground to some over-ear headphones in the comfort department but is well-made and has good noise isolation with a proper seal. All in all, those looking for an over-the-ear set with good clarity and controlled, accurate bass will be well-served by the DNA Pro. 

 

 

 

(S1) Summary (The short version)
 

 

All of the ratings above are subjective. They reflect my personal evaluation of each headphone. To be (marginally) more objective about my value rating I have decided to tabulate the data and calculate numerical averages. This table is meant to only be used as a quick reference guide in the context of the review. The numbers are meaningless unless you know the reasoning behind them. No matter how high of a rating, in sound or value, I give to a particular product, always place your own personal preferences first - sound is a subjective thing and we all have our preferences. I try to be as objective as possible, but complete objectivity is completely impossible, so take the numbers with a grain of salt and read the text! 

 


Please note that sound is given double weight in my calculations. Keep in mind that the prices listed are for the US at the moment of this writing. Adjust the scores accordingly if the relative prices of the headphones are different for you. I realize that head-fi is a worldwide community, but I have neither the ability nor the resources to take worldwide pricing into account.

The table is arranged in the order of descending average score.

 

 

See here for the new sortable/searchable version of this table.

 

Approximate rating breakdown:

9.5-10/10 : Outstanding/best in category
8 - 9/10 : Very good
6 - 7.5/10 : Good
4 - 5.5/10 : Average/tolerable
2 - 3.5/10 : Poor
0 - 1.5/10 : Very poor 

 

 

Acknowledgements

As the number of people who have assisted me in creating this thread grows, I've decided to add this section in an attempt to thank at least some of them. Without the support of these fellow head-fiers I would never have gotten as far as I have with this thread.

jant71
slntdth93

tdockweiler

dweaver 

JamesMcProgger 

mcnoiserdc

Shmulkey
Jackquelegs

The Other Allen



Hopefully this review will help someone decide on a pair of portable headphones. Please feel free to comment with any questions or suggestions, either by posting or via PM.


Edited by ljokerl - 7/4/14 at 4:28pm
post #3 of 4374
Great comparison. lots of work put into that one, Kudos!

Any interest in the JVC S700? They can be had for around $25-$35 now. Surprised that nobody buys the S700/S900 but the RX700/900 and flats are flying off the shelves. I had the S900 and they were quite better than SR60/Portapro/PX100 and the like.
post #4 of 4374
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by jant71 View Post
Great comparison. lots of work put into that one, Kudos!

Any interest in the JVC S700? They can be had for around $25-$35 now. Surprised that nobody buys the S700/S900 but the RX700/900 and flats are flying off the shelves. I had the S900 and they were quite better than SR60/Portapro/PX100 and the like.
Thanks for the kind words!

As for the S700/900s, I was under the impression that they are circumaurals. They look to be the same size as the low-end sennheiser circumaurals (HD212, etc).

If they are on-ears like the rest on this review I might pick up a pair just for comparison. Those slimz look quite tempting, too.
post #5 of 4374
great review/comparison! thanks for taking the time to put it together
post #6 of 4374
Quote:
Originally Posted by ljokerl View Post
Thanks for the kind words!

As for the S700/900s, I was under the impression that they are circumaurals. They look to be the same size as the low-end sennheiser circumaurals (HD212, etc).

If they are on-ears like the rest on this review I might pick up a pair just for comparison. Those slimz look quite tempting, too.
The S900 are on ear. I think the S700 does try to be a small circumaural. It seems to weigh an ounce more than the S900. They are a bit larger than the PX but the S900 at least is smaller than the HD(I've had the HD477 and HD202).

Maybe you can tell from the plug or other cues in the pic that the S900 is basically a bit thicker beefier pair of flats. The pads are about 2.25 by 2.75 inches outside dimensions.
post #7 of 4374
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by koven View Post
great review/comparison! thanks for taking the time to put it together
Thanks! Makes me feel all warm and appreciated

Quote:
Originally Posted by jant71 View Post
The S900 are on ear. I think the S700 does try to be a small circumaural. It seems to weigh an ounce more than the S900. They are a bit larger than the PX but the S900 at least is smaller than the HD(I've had the HD477 and HD202).

http://i39.photobucket.com/albums/e1...7/P1010269.jpg

Maybe you can tell from the plug or other cues in the pic that the S900 is basically a bit thicker beefier pair of flats. The pads are about 2.25 by 2.75 inches outside dimensions.
They look quite interesting. How's the isolation?

As you can see, my interest is already piqued. Will definitely try to grab either these or the slimz if I see a cheap pair, but I will try to hold out until I can sell something to clear up the room.
post #8 of 4374
I would guess they would isolate slightly more than the Flats do. Noticeably more than the SHL9500 or Slimz do. Same issue as the Flats, the thick pads do need some time to break in a bit and conform to the ear better. I never broke the pads in as I chose thinner pads for them since around the house/yard I wanted less bass. I really didn't use them outside where more seal/bass is helpful.
post #9 of 4374
thanks for the review.
post #10 of 4374
Hi,
Fantastic review.
Your comments on the Koss ksc 75 and sennheiser px-100 reminded me of when i was deciding on a cd player. The nad c542 was a nice warm sounding machine and very relaxing to listen too (perhaps like the px100) but lacked a little in drive, attack etc and perhaps detail. The cambridge audio 640c was exciting, detail and attack (perhaps like the Koss ksc75) but lacked a little in warmth and that nice relaxing sound. It was hard to decide betwen the two of them - like here, wouldnt it be good if we could mix both into one unit- just a reflection.

Cheers,

Steve.
post #11 of 4374
wow... another great review.. thanks.. so far all the reviews on this forum are insane... keep up the good work guys!! (so that lazy bums like me can just leech of all your knowledge, haha!!)
post #12 of 4374
Thread Starter 
Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Quote:
Originally Posted by stephennic View Post
The cambridge audio 640c was exciting, detail and attack (perhaps like the Koss ksc75) but lacked a little in warmth and that nice relaxing sound. It was hard to decide betwen the two of them - like here, wouldnt it be good if we could mix both into one unit- just a reflection.
Hmm, all the qualities in just one unit - that would be one schizophrenic headphone. Aggressive and smooth, forward and relaxed, muddy and yet controlled. It's the headphone with have bipolar disorder .

Still, I will keep looking for something in that sweet spot between the PX100 and KSC75 - and that still manages to be as engaging as both.
post #13 of 4374
Hi IJOKERL,

Haa Haa. I think you know what I mean. Something that is so well balanced for eg with Jass it can be relaxing and engauging, with rock dynamic and exciting etc. That is both accurate and natural to the original event. By the way i just did my first mini mini mini review (compared to yours) on the sennheiser cx-300-II vs senheiser cx-300.

Cheers,

Steve.
post #14 of 4374
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by stephennic View Post
Hi IJOKERL,

Haa Haa. I think you know what I mean. Something that is so well balanced for eg with Jass it can be relaxing and engauging, with rock dynamic and exciting etc. That is both accurate and natural to the original event. By the way i just did my first mini mini mini review (compared to yours) on the sennheiser cx-300-II vs senheiser cx-300.

Cheers,

Steve.
The cx-300 II's look interesting. Might pick up a pair for comparison purposes (I owned a pair of cx300s for about a day. They went back to the store in favor of V-Moda Vibes (old ones) cause the sound just wasnt for me).
post #15 of 4374
what is your next target??? Yuin G series??
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