I missed Skullcandy's exhibit at last year's CES, so made sure to stop in for a visit this year. Additionally, I wanted to say hello to an industry friend who recently started working there. Here's how I envisioned my stop at Skullcandy's exhibit: Say hello to industry buddy, take a quick look around, take some photos, listen to a model or two, say goodbye to industry buddy, depart for more audiophile-focused headphone maker exhibits.
C'mon, now, we know what first comes to mind, as Head-Fi'ers, when the word "Skullcandy" is mentioned: Inexpensive, wild-fashion-first, not-audiophile-sound-quality, my-young-nephew-digs-'em headphones. If, like me, you were under the impression that Skullcandy was either uninterested or incapable of developing headphones that Head-Fi'ers would appreciate, then here's what I'm going to tell you, and what I was rather surprised to find out: We were wrong on both counts.
Here's how the Skullcandy visit actually went: My industry buddy (Gernard Feril) greeted me, and introduced me to Dan Levine, Executive Vice President of Skullcandy. I was surprised to find out that Dan was quite familiar with Head-Fi, as well as the perception of Skullcandy in our community (which he spoke very openly, very frankly about)--and he seemed entirely genuine when he said he respected and admired what we do here, and our undying focus on sound fidelity and quality. And, in that vein, he wanted to show me a couple of Skullcandy products they're exceedingly proud of, that he felt confident would also appeal to the Head-Fi'ers of the world, and maybe then begin the process of changing hearts and minds here.
The first product he showed me was the Mix Master Mike headphone, named after the legendary DJ (now with the Beastie Boys) who inspired and helped design it. The $250.00 Mix Master Mike is their current flagship, and, with no previous knowledge of this model, when Dan handed one to me to listen to, it was my first time ever seeing it. Handling the Mix Master Mike revealed a headphone that appeared and felt very well built, very durable--I'm used to this fit and finish from Sennheiser, but admit I was not necessarily expecting this level of build quality from Skullcandy; and I say this in full consideration of the fact that it's priced up there at $250.00.
(Click on the photos to see larger versions. Also, see more photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/the-jude/)
Dan also showed me a few rather unique features of the Mix Master Mike: Cue Control, a mute button, and ambidextrous single-side cable entry. If you've seen a DJ do his thing, you may have noticed he was probably only wearing one earcup a lot of the time, so that he can concurrently hear his mix in one ear and ambient in the other. One key downside to this is that the DJ is obviously only hearing one channel while he's doing this. Skullcandy's Cue Control, for those who do this one-earcup thing, is a simple bit of genius: pivot one earpiece, and both earpieces switch to mono, so that the user hears both channels summed through either single earpiece. Also, some DJ's want to be able to mute the headphone to temporarily hear ambient exclusively, which resulted in Mix Master Mike's decision to put a mute button on the right earpiece of his eponymous headphone. And the ambidextrous cable entry allows the user to choose either the left or right earpiece for the single-side cable entry. (The only other headphone I know of with the ambidextrous cable entry is another recent DJ headphone, Monster Cable's new Beats Pro.) Speaking of cables, the Mix Master Mike comes with two cables, one coiled, the other straight with a microphone and full three-button iPhone/iPod controls.
Like most other DJ headphones I've tried, the Mix Master Mike has strong clamping force; but its memory foam synthetic leather earpads and headband cushioning make it extremely comfortable on my large noggin. (The contrasting white stitching on the black earpads looks very cool, by the way.)
So the Mix Master Mike feels the part, it has a few very unique features, and, if you're into its modern styling (which I find very attractive), they look the part, too. But does it sound the part? When you're a Head-Fi'er shopping in this price range, choices abound. For almost $100.00 less, you've got one of my favorite closed headphones in the SHURE SRH-840, which has a more reference sound signature, with excellent bass extension, mild low-mid bass emphasis, and a generally even-handed signature from mids to top--a resolving signature that many an audiophile has found favor with, especially for a closed headphone (which often tend to possess noticeable resonance or boom).
The Mix Master Mike is definitely on the bass-heavier side, which shouldn't be surprising, given that it was designed by a DJ who wanted to make a headphone he himself would want to use for work; and for rhythmic foundation in loud environs, DJ's tend to want bass emphasis. The bass emphasis on the Mix Master Mike does move into the mids, giving a heavier, thicker sound. That said, the Mix Master Mike still manages to be generally resolving. For me, the level of bass emphasis is definitely well north of ideal, but those who fancy themselves bass-heads--those who might dig the beyerdynamic DT770 Pro, for example--might find the Mix Master Mike to their liking.
The Mix Master Mike's nominal impedance is 100 ohms, and it does benefit from a headphone amplifier, in my experience. Out of either my Ray Samuels Audio SR-71b or VentureCraft GO-DAP, bass resolution and tautness (among other things) improved a noticeable tick, versus running straight out of my iPhone 3GS. Consider this headphone directly drivable from an iPod or iPhone, but give it an amp if you want to hear it at its best.
Long story short on the Mix Master Mike: While the sound signature is certainly bass-heavier than I'd prefer, it is a good headphone, and I like it more than I'd have expected I'd like a DJ-designed headphone. Again, I think those who prefer substantial bass emphasis in their headphones will find the Skullcandy Mix Master Mike a worthwhile contender, even at $250.00, especially in consideration of its excellent build quality, style, and unique features.
The next headphone Dan showed me was an upcoming earbud called the Skullcandy FIX. I didn't get to listen to the FIX, but I did get to handle it and wear it. The noteworthy design feature of the FIX that Skullcandy was promoting at CES was its unique hook-like design, intended to be the first earbud that stays well-placed in your ear without the need for any additional appendages. I put the FIX in my ear and was thrilled--it not only stayed in securely with head movement, but it was held with a bit of push into my ear, as opposed to just barely dangling there, which most normal earbuds tend to do with my ears. (Check out the photos to see the FIX earbuds holding various heavy things. They work.) I hope the FIX ends up sounding good, because the way it fits is just what many earbud wearers have dreamt of, myself included. (The only earbuds I'd previously found to hold securely were ones by Sennheiser using their fit fins or twist-to-fit systems.)
(Click on the photos to see larger versions. Also, see more photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/the-jude/)
Next up at the Skullcandy exhibit was the Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator headphone. I'd seen the Aviator in photographs, but never up-close in person. The Aviator's design is decidedly retro, looking like some modern twist on a headphone you might see in antique photographs. Inspired by aviator sunglasses, the Aviator is, in my opinion, absolutely stunning to look at in person--especially the brown/gold and black/chrome versions (there is also a white/chrome one). The black/chrome Aviator looks a little more understated than the brown/gold one, and is my personal favorite of the three available color combos--it has a sort of art deco thing going on, versus the brown/gold's steampunk'ish appearance. Again, all three versions are gorgeous.
Like the Mix Master Mike, the Roc Nation Aviator feels high quality in the hands. If your only Skullcandy experience has been with their wildly popular sub-$50.00 pieces, you're going to be surprised when you handle the Aviator; and you won't be able to help but turn it and spin it about, to examine it from various angles (this has happened practically every time I've handed it to someone, including veteran headphone audiophiles).
The Aviator has a thin, single-side cable with a microphone and in-line three-button iPhone/iPod control. The cable is not detachable, and is sheathed in a woven material. Fixed cables are still more the norm than detachable ones, but I'd still liked to have seen a detachable cable on the Aviator for affordable, easy replacement.
The Roc Nation Aviator, like the Mix Master Mike, uses memory foam synthetic leather earpads. With medium-grip clamping force, the Aviator feels light on the head, and very comfortable. Fit and finish is outstanding, the hinge design on each side essentially a giant version of a hinge you might find on high-quality sunglasses. And speaking of sunglasses, Skullcandy, in wanting a semi-transparent outer earcup cover, went to a lens manufacturer for optical-quality polycarbonate covers. The aesthetic of these lens-quality covers has to be seen in person to be appreciated. At any angle, the view into the earpiece through the outer covers is virtually distortion-free, which would not be doable with lesser semi-transparent plastic materials shaped into such pronounced curves. The lenses also have a hardened coating, for added durability. I was hoping this kind of attention to detail didn't stop at the Aviator's looks. It didn't.
When I learned that the Roc Nation Aviator is a product that Skullcandy collaborated with rapper Jay-Z on, I expected the same level of bass emphasis present with the Mix Master Mike headphone, but found something else altogether--something more reference, more nimble. And when I put the Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator over my ears, I knew, for the first time, I really wanted a Skullcandy headphone.
Overall, my very first impressions of the Aviator were of a surprisingly even-handed and resolving closed headphone. If you've experienced the Aviator (or any other big-store-available headphones) by listening through store demo displays, you almost certainly haven't heard it. Bring your high-bitrate or lossless music to bear on the Aviator (through your own rig), and I think you'll be very impressed. I certainly was.
Again, the Aviator is extremely comfortable--I've since worn it for hours at a time, several times. And, most importantly, the Aviator sounds good. Excellent, in fact, for a $150.00 closed headphone. Whereas, with its brand of bass emphasis, the Mix Master Mike has me playing more of my 80's hip hop than I'd typically play (listen to Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back through the Mix Master Mike, and you'll understand why), the Aviator had me doing the type of genre crisscrossing I normally do on some of my favorite rigs. And, yes, the Aviator excels at all musical genres I listen to (and that encompasses just about everything), which for me is one of the hallmarks of a headphone I can easily recommend, and so I will. When asked for an audiophile-quality full-size closed headphone in the sub-$200.00 price range, I've been first recommending SHURE's SRH-840. When asked that same question now, the Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator will certainly be added to the list.
So that's how my visit with Skullcandy at CES went--nothing like I initially imagined it would.
After listening to the Mix Master Mike, and especially the Aviator, it was obvious to me that Skullcandy is indeed capable of making products Head-Fi'ers will want, and has recently been doing so, with most of us here (myself included) simply not yet noticing. After a long talk with Dan Levine at CES, it's obvious they're serious about not just being the first brand of headphone people think of when they want a hip-looking piece, but also continue to make the moves necessary to becoming as natural a recommendation for top audio quality at every price point they compete in. At CES, Dan shared with me a secret cache of some prototypes of Skullcandy's future products and some of their future plans, and some of those plans will be of great interest to us--I guarantee it. A follow-up call with Dan yesterday only strengthened that perception.
When it comes to Skullcandy, consider my heart and mind changing quickly--the Aviator certainly has my ears convinced.
Coming soon: More CES Days 2 and 3 coverage, with Sennheiser, VentureCraft, HiFiMAN, Westone and others.