The HT-21 is the first portable headphone from one of Head-Fi’s favourite budget IEM manufacturers. Announced several weeks ago along with their new ceramic-shelled in-ear monitors, the HT-21 is Meelec’s foray into the populated field of entry-level portables. Historically, the best portable headphones in the <$50 range have mostly been open – Koss KSC75/PortaPro, Sennheiser PX100, iGrado, etc. Clearly the HT-21 has upper hand when it comes to isolation and, as it turns out, doesn’t exactly fall behind in other aspects, either.
Design & Build Quality
The HT-21 is a compact supraaural headphone similar in size to the Panasonic RP-DJ120 and related models. 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, putting the much-pricier AKG K430 and similarly-priced Sennheiser PX100 and Soundmagic P20 to shame. 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. I wouldn’t expect the thinner plastics of the HT-21 to be as durable as the much-beefier $100 DJ sets but for the price the build feels like it should last and, as many of us in the IEM game know, Meelec has a reputation for standing behind their products.
Fit & Comfort
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.
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 still far ahead of open sets in isolation and especially leakage.
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
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 drivers are not the most resolving and lack a bit of detail and dynamic range compared to sets like the AKG K430, which shares the HT-21’s form factor, albeit at 2.5x the price. What the HT-21 does is make the absolute best of how it’s equipped, and that puts it head-and-shoulders above direct competitors such as the Soundmagic P20 and Audio-Technica ATH-FC700. On the whole the HT-21 is an aggressive headphone with reasonably 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 bas boost on the equalizer before distorting. Amazingly, the HT-21 can accommodate more equalization in the <150Hz region than the $100 K430, as well. Compared to the Audio-Technica FC700 the tables are turned – the FC700 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 slightly 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. There a small amount of warmth imparted by the bass (more pre-burn-in) but the headphones lean very slightly towards the cool side of the spectrum on the whole. The Soundmagic P20 is cooler and brighter still, boasting slightly better detail than the HT-21 but giving up some smoothness in return. Clarity is similar between the two – very impressive for a pair of <$40 portable sets. The slightly aggressive 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 the thickness of fuller-sounding sets such as the DHP-II but guitars have plenty of presence and natural-sounding ‘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, clear, and reasonably detailed. Extension is decent – better than with the Koss KSC75 or Sennheiser PX100 but not as good as with the K430. The HT-21 is a fairly well-balanced headphone on the whole and the sparkly treble works to balance out what would otherwise be a slightly warm signature with boosted mid-bass. There is a bit of unevenness in the upper midrange and 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 but the HT-21 isn’t one that will work to smooth out an audio track. Things like mp3 compression artifacts, on the other hand, are easily forgiven by the moderate detail level and average dynamic range of the HT-21.
The soundstage of the HT-21 has surprising air for a closed set but layering is mediocre and depth is lacking compared to open sets. The overall sense of space, however, is still quite good, especially next to similarly-priced closed sets. The Soundmagic P20, for example, is made to sound distant in comparison and its 3-dimensionality is far less convincing. The HT-21 does a better of job of differentiating between a track’s background and foreground and sounds neither closed-in nor tubular. On the whole the HT-21 is not something one would purchase for the soundstage alone – its true strengths lie in clarity and control – but as a secondary characteristic the spacious and airy presentation is quite enjoyable.
Value & Conclusions
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 is a highly portable headphone that will fit easily in 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 enough to be usable while running. Meelec’s usual attention to detail is seen in the design, with a sturdy angled plug used at the end of the single-sided cable and grips on the headband for easy adjustment. The construction of the headphone itself is solid as well, with above-average plastics quality and a simple but functional folding/adjustment mechanism.
The sound quality won’t land them in direct competition with my high-end portable sets any time soon but puts up a very good fight against budget-minded competitors from mainstream brands. The balance is skewed very slightly towards the bass and midrange, with punchy, controlled notes down low and energetic guitars and vocals. The treble is bright and sparkly but usually inoffensive. Granted, I have a relatively high tolerance for prominent (but not harsh) treble but so far I’ve managed to use the HT-21 for six hours straight without fatigue at moderate volumes, which says good things about both the sound signature and comfort. The verdict? 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. The clarity is truly class-leading and the fairly airy presentation may finally work to kill off the stigma against closed entry-level headphones (here's to hoping!). In my opinion the HT-21 is another budget set done right by Meelec.