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Review: Fashion vs. Function-Phiaton MS400, B&W P5, Monster Beats Solo, V-Moda Crossfade, Sony...

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Introduction

 

Gone are the days when headphones costing more than a day’s pay were only purchased by audiophiles and music professionals - the revolution in consumer-class portables, started by the likes of Bose and Sony, has resulted in the bridging of the gap between style-focused consumer-class audio equipment and ‘hi-fi’, at least on paper. What I’ve got in front of me right now are five examples of mainstream-oriented sets from five very different manufacturers – Sony, Monster Cable, Phiaton, V-Moda, and B&W – none of which can be considered Head-Fi darlings in the strictest sense – as well as the ever-popular Sennheiser HD25-1, which will be used as the hi-fi benchmark in my attempt to find the ultimate combination of style, comfort, and fidelity.
 

 

The Contenders

 


Flag_of_South_Korea2.pngPhiaton MS400 – I’ve reviewed the Phiatons previously in my portable headphone shootout thread and found them to be very much to my liking for a relaxed and relaxing consumer-class headphone, if a bit pricy for the sound quality offered. In addition, the original MS400 had all the subtlety of a burning meteorite but now there is a sleek all-black version, making the MS400 one of the first sets I think of when stylish portables come up.

Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom2.pngBowers & Wilkins P5 – The P5 is the first personal audio release from a company known best for their floorstanding speakers. With B&W keeping a tight hold on pricing, the P5 is also the most expensive headphone in this lineup by a fair margin. While the pedigree of the P5 cannot be disputed, the sound signature has been the source of much contention. The styling, too, is fairly polarizing but I, for one, like the brutish good looks and smooth lines of the P5.

Flag_of_the_United_States2.pngMonster Dr Dre Beats Solo – The Monster name may not be particularly well-liked around Head-Fi but the Solo is undoubtedly the most popular headphone in this lineup if we look at actual sales figures and therefore warrants a look. Big thanks to mcnoiserdc for letting me put his Beats Solo through head-to-head tests against all of the other headphones featured here.



Flag_of_the_United_States2.pngV-Moda Crossfade LP – V-Moda is a US-based designer of fashionable headphones and earphones, known mostly for their IEMs, especially the Vibe. On paper, the Crossfade LP has quite a lot to offer, from the unique chevron-inspired styling and sizeable selection of color combinations to the impressive list of accessories, but shares the 2nd-priciest headphone spot with the Sennheiser HD25-1.

Flag_of_Japan2.pngSony MDR-XB700 – The XB700 may not be a portable headphone in terms of size and weight, but that doesn’t stop bass lovers from taking them out on the street. Condoning portable use, Sony equipped the XB700 with a short and lightweight cable and 3.5mm plug. In addition, the XB700 makes a great set of ear warmers in cooler climates, with the warmth of the pads exceeded only by the warmth of the sound signature. The cheapest headphone here by far, the XB700 nevertheless holds its own against the other consumer-oriented bass-monsters and even throws a punch or two at the top contenders.

Flag_of_Germany2.pngSennheiser HD25-1 – The HD25-1 needs no introduction – while far from sonic perfection, the HD25-1 has everything I look for in a portable headphone – ruggedness, portability, isolation, and comfort. If any of these fashion phones are to lay any claims to the functionality crown, the HD25-1 is clearly the set to beat.

 

Packaging & Accessories

 

Phiaton MS400 – The MS400 ships in a fancy (and very large) cardboard box well in line with the steep MSRP of the headphones. In terms of accessories, you get a ¼” adapter and an excellent clamshell hard carrying case just barely large enough to fit the headphones – a real space-saver for bags and suitcases.

 

Bowers & Wilkins P5 - The packaging of the P5 is just as attractive as that of the Phiatons – a heavy cardboard box that’s easy on the eyes and friendly to the fingers. Inside there is a soft magnetic-clasp carrying pouch, ¼” adapter, and a pair of cables – one with an in-line iPhone mic and one without, both 3.9ft (1.2m) in length.

 

Monster Dr Dre Beats Solo - Like all Monster Beats by Dr Dre products, the Solos come in flashy red-and-black packaging. There’s a handy warning on the box telling would-be Beats users that “Life’s too short to listen to bad headphones” but judging from the number of Beats I see on the street, it is a poor deterrent. Inside the box is a soft zippered carrying case, detachable 3.9ft (1.2m) cable with in-line mic, and anti-microbial cleaning cloth.

 

V-Moda Crossfade LP - The packaging of the Crossfade LP is perhaps my favourite of the bunch – it is compact and straightforward, held closed by a single ribbon. No finger-cutting plastic inserts here - the headphones are stored right in their excellent protective skeleton case. Inside the case also are a carabiner, a ¼” adapter, a cleaning cloth, and a pair of cables – a short 3ft (0.9m) portable cord with an in-line iPhone mic and a longer 5.8ft (1.8m) stereo cable for stationary use.

 

Sony MDR-XB700 - Being the cheapest headphone in the lineup, it should be no surprise that aside from the pro-oriented HD25-1, it comes in the most conventional retail packaging. There’s not much in the way of accessories, either – just an oversize pleather carrying bag. No big surprise there - a hard case would simply make no sense for a headphone that is 90% foam by volume.

 

Sennheiser HD25-1 - The packaging of the HD25-1 varies from version to version. My ‘Special Edition’ HD25s came in a plain carboard box with zippered canvas carrying case but other versions include spare pads in place of the case. Either way there is no mistaking the no-nonsense pro-oriented packaging of the HD25 for any of the others here.



Ranking: Crossfade LP > MS400 = Beats Solo = P5 > HD25-1 = XB700

 

Design & Build Quality


Phiaton MS400


Phiaton MS400.jpg

 

Phiaton MS400 folded.jpg

 

 

While the build quality of the MS400 generally impresses with the elegant precision-built feel of the lightweight construction, in this review group it loses out in overall toughness to all but the Dr Dre Beats. Being both flat-folding and collapsible, the MS400 has the most moving parts and, though the hinges and inner headband are metal, an immotile construction is almost always superior when it comes to durability. Both the black and red versions of the MS400 feature luxurious padding and cups with carbon fiber inserts under a clear polycarbonate shell. The thin and flexible cabling is quite convenient for portable use but isn’t detachable and feels less sturdy than all but the thin and stringy B&W P5 cord.


 

Bowers & Wilkins P5

 

B&W P5.jpg


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 Dr Dre Beats – quite a feat considering how much more solid the construction of the P5 feels. The only letdown is the cable, which is the thinnest and most stringy-feeling of all the headphones here. 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, though additional replacement cables can only be purchased from B&W as neither the Beats Solo nor V-Moda Crossfade cords will work in their stead.


 

Monster Dr Dre Beats Solo

 

Monster Beats Solo.jpg

 

Monster Beats Solo Folded.jpg


The Dr Dre Beats Solo, along with the Phiaton MS400, is the most plasticky-feeling set of the bunch, with large quantities of matte and glossy plastics used 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 designed 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&Ws/Phiatons and the vented cloth padding of the Crossfade LP. The Solo is also the only headphone of the bunch that exhibits any sort of driver flex, which can be annoying at times. 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. Oddly, genuine replacement cables for the Beats Solo are nowhere to be found on Monster’s site, possibly in an effort to prevent counterfeiters from outfitting Beats knockoffs with genuine cabling.


 

V-Moda Crossfade LP

 

V-Moda Crossfade LP.jpg


The most obvious physical property of the Crossfade LP is the sheer weight of the headphones – though the Crossfade is a bit lighter than the Sony XB700 on paper, it feels heavier to the touch. 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 Crossfade outlast the 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 cables 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.


 

Sony MDR-XB700

 

Sony MDR-XB700.jpg


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. Like the V-Modas, 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. On the whole I feel just a bit more secure with the Crossfade LP since it has a replaceable cable and hard carrying case but the XB700 gives the rest a run for their money.


 

Sennheiser HD25-1

 

sennheiserhd251mkii.jpg


The structure of the HD25 is extremely simple. Though the headphone is neither flat-folding nor collapsible, it was clearly designed with portability in mind, being the lightest of the bunch. The rough black plastic is resistant to cracks and scratches and the steel cable is absurdly thick and sturdy. In addition, the entire headphone comes apart in just a few minutes and every part is user-replaceable.

Ranking: HD25-1 > P5 > Crossfade LP > XB700 >= MS400 > Beats Solo

 

 

Fit & Comfort


 

Phiaton MS400


The MS400 is somewhere between a large supraaural and small circumaural headphone in size, covering my entire ear but not quite fitting all the way around it. The cups are fairly shallow and do tend to bottom out. Those who abhor supraaural fitment will still want to pass on the MS400 but I find them very comfortable for a set of portables. The padding used on the cups and headband of the MS400 is easily the softest I've encountered and the fit is highly adjustable due to the multi-axis folding mechanism. Clamping force is moderate – about on-par with the Beats Solo and B&W P5. Like most pleather-padded headphones, the MS400 tend to invoke sweat after prolonged use but aren’t as warm as the pillow-like XB700s.
 

Bowers & Wilkins P5


The B&W P5 is far smaller than I originally expected, occupying about the same amount of aural real estate as the Beats Solo and HD25-1. The flat rectangular pads remind me of the ones used by Sennheiser’s HD228 and 238 headphones but are a bit firmer. Despite their firmness, the pads, helped along by the compliant fitment mechanism of the P5, spread pressure very evenly across the ear and remain comfortable for many hours. The supraaural coupling also prevents the headphones from getting too warm, which puts them just above the Sony MDR-XB700 when it comes to overall comfort for prolonged listening sessions.
 

Monster Dr Dre Beats Solo


The Dr Dre 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 pads aren’t as soft as those of the Phiatons 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).
 

V-Moda Crossfade LP


As the only truly circumaural headphone in the lineup aside from the XB700, the Crossfade LP has an inherent advantage over the supraaural sets. However, the Crossfade is also heavy and the cups aren’t very deep. 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 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.
 

Sony MDR-XB700


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.
 

Sennheiser HD25-1


Despite having the highest clamping force of the bunch, the lightweight HD25-1 manages to keep up with the other supraaurals in comfort by virtue of its adjustable dual headband and velour pads. The cups have a good range of motion despite lacking any joints whatsoever and conform well to the shape of one’s head. The high clamping force does take its toll after a while but on the whole the HD25-1 does a great job of keeping the fit painless for as long as possible.



Ranking: P5 >= XB700 > Crossfade LP >= HD25-1 = MS400 = Beats Solo

 

Isolation

 

Phiaton MS400

 

For a comfortable semi-supraaural heaphone, the MS400 isolates quite well. While it doesn't quite keep up with the Sennheisers or B&Ws, the isolation is good enough for daily use and leakage is non-existent thanks to the soft pads and compliant fit.

 

Bowers & Wilkins P5


The P5 is surprisingly well-isolating, nearly keeping up with the legendary HD25-1 by some inconceivable virtue of its design (or dark magic). The flat earpads seal surprisingly well and some driver flex can be coaxed from the P5 (though the Dre Beats Solo are still far more offensive in this regard). 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.

 

Monster Dr Dre Beats Solo


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 Solo still beats out the MS400 and ties with the much-larger Crossfade LP, providing plenty of isolation and minimal leakage for use on the go.

 

V-Moda Crossfade LP


The isolation of the Crossfade LP is on par with other small circumaural sets from companies such as JVC and Panasonic. Like the Beats and Phiatons, they don’t quite reach the passive attenuation level of the HD25-1 and P5 but do come quite close.

 

Sony MDR-XB700


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.

 

Sennheiser HD25-1


Though portable headphones can never isolate as well as the high-end IEMs, the HD25 isolates well enough to compete with certain shallow-insertion in-ears. The vinyl pads isolate just a bit more than the velour ones but even with the cloth pads the isolation crown of the HD25-1 can be usurped only the B&W P5.


Ranking: HD25-1 >= P5 > Crossfade LP = Beats Solo >= MS400 >= XB700



 

Technical Specifications

 


 

Phiaton MS400

Bowers & Wilkins P5

Monster Beats by Dr Dre Solo

V-Moda Crossfade LP

Sony MDR-XB700

Sennheiser HD25-1

Impedance

 

32Ω

26Ω

N/A

32Ω

24Ω

70Ω

Sensitivity @1kHz

 

98dB/1mW

115dB/1V

N/A

N/A

106dB/1mW

120dB/1V

Frequency Response

 

15Hz-22kHz

10Hz-20kHz

N/A

5Hz-30kHz

3Hz–28kHz

16Hz–22kHz

Cable Length

 

3.9ft (1.2m)

3.9ft (1.2m)

3.9ft (1.2m)

3ft (0.9m);

5.8 ft (1.8m)

3.9ft (1.2m)

5ft (1.5m)

Cable Configuration

 

Dual-entry

Single-entry; detachable

Single-entry; detachable

Single-entry; detachable

Dual-entry

Single-entry; detachable

Weight

 

6.5oz (185g)

6.9oz (195g)

6.6oz (187g)

9.9oz (280g)

10.4oz (295g)

5oz (142g)

iPhone Compatible

 

No

Optional

Yes

Optional

No

No

Coupling

 

Supraaural*

Supraaural

Supraaural

Circumaural

Circumaural

Supraaural

Space-saving Mechanism

 

Flat-folding + collapsible

Flat-folding

Collapsible

None

None

None

Street Price (MSRP)

 

$170 ($249.00)

$300 ($299.99)

$179 ($199.95)

$199 ($249.95)

$80 ($129.99)

$200 ($269.95)





graphCompare.php?graphType=0&graphID[]=423&graphID[]=2581&graphID[]=513&graphID[]=1193
Frequency response graph of the four sets that have been tested by Headroom
 

Sound Quality


Testing note: All on-the-go listening was done using a Cowon J3 portable player with a wide range of tracks in mp3 (bitrates ranging from 128 to 320kbps) format. Critical listening was done via an optical-fed iBasso D10 using only WMA and FLAC lossless files.

 

Phiaton MS400


It is no coincidence that Phiaton eschewed marketing the MS400 as ‘DJ’, ‘Studio’, or ‘Monitoring’ headphones – like all of the other fashion phones, the MS400 is targeted squarely at the consumer market. Starting at the low end, the MS400 boasts the sort of full and engaging sound that captivates the average music lover at first listen. The low end boasts decent extension and good definition, with a substantial emphasis on mid- and upper bass. Sub-bass is not quite as rumbly as with the Sony XB700 but the low remains very strong down to around 30Hz. It is properly textured and impactful enough to make the HD25 sound slightly 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 but fares better than the XB700, Beats Solo, and Crossfade LP. Compared to the Sony, Monster, and V-Moda sets, the bass of the Phiatons is softer and less aggressive. As a result it works well for relaxed listening and manages to be less intrusive than the bass of all the headphones here except for the HD25 and P5. 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 thickness of note that is extremely deficient in the Beats Solo and even the HD25-1. Clarity is good overall, competing with the thinner-sounding Beats and recessed XB700 and beating out the Crossfade by a large margin. Detail and texture are good as well, again placing the MS400 just behind the HD25/P5 and ahead of the others.

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 the 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, the MS400 does play nice with low-bitrate mp3 tracks straight out of an mp3 player while at the same time cutting hiss from poorly-matched sources very effectively. Straight out my Tianyun Zero, hiss levels are nearly identical to the 70O HD25-1 - non-existent at listening volumes and whisper-quiet at full blast.

In terms of presentation, the MS400 is an intimate-sounding and slightly forward headphone. Soundstage width is average for a portable headphone – wider than the HD25-1 but not much better than the others. What the MS400 does have over the HD25 and Beats Solo is the immersion factor – the soundstage is more spherical in shape and actually extends top-to-bottom and even front-to-rear (a little). Unlike the HD25-1, which has a narrow soundstage and manages to sound a bit 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 rather attention-grabbing. Can the MS400 be considered a true audiophile set? Probably not. But moving back to my HD25-1 I can’t help but be disappointed by the cold, unwelcoming brightness and slight metallic treble tinge exhibited by my beloved Sennheisers.
 

Bowers & Wilkins P5


The B&W P5 happens to not only be the priciest set in this lineup but also the priciest portable headphone I’ve had the pleasure of owning. Having skimmed some early reviews of the P5, I was not expecting groundbreaking audio quality out of them. However, I figured that my lack of familiarity with Bowers & Wilkins as a brand might actually be an asset in evaluating the headphones, leaving less room for disappointment than with some of Head-Fi’s more senior reviewers, and gave them a shot anyway. 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 HD25-1 or Dre Beats Solo.

Starting at the low end the P5 exhibits a relatively balanced and refined sound, tying with the HD25-1 for the lowest quantity of bass between all of the sets reviewed here. 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 Phiatons but lacks the fullness of the MS400’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.

 

Monster Beats by Dr Dre Solo


The Monster Beats by Dr Dre line is much-maligned around head-fi but just how much of the detriment is elitist fluff? The same attitude prevailed against the Monster brand in its entirety right up until the Turbine line started to get positive reviews, but the fact that the same has not happened for the Beats is not necessarily indicative of anything. 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 XB700, though a bit of the depth and rumble is missing as well. The low end of the Beats is both impactful and aggressive – more so than the softer-sounding MS400 – but lacks the texture and resolution of the Phiatons. 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 not greater than with the Phiaton MS400, though the more forward midrange of the Phiatons helps them sound cleaner and more balanced. The midrange of the Beats is crisp and relatively clear – surprisingly, the Beats are quite lean-sounding compared to the others in this group, lacking the full-bodied warmth of the MS400 and the thickness of the B&W P5. The Beats do sound significantly more crisp than the V-Modas, 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 smooth and 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 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 slightly 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 lots of 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 Sonys and the slightly more demanding HD25-1 and B&W P5. 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? Not exactly – 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, only in helping buyers make an informed decision. If it were my money, I’d buy something else, but then I’ve never been in the market for audio couture.

 

V-Moda Crossfade LP


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. 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. Extension is on-par with the XB700 but the bass of the Sonys still sounds a touch deeper and more articulate. It doesn’t help that the badly recessed midrange of the XB700 is clearer of bass bleed than that of the Crossfade. The mids of the V-Modas are well-textured but lack clarity and still sound somewhat muffled even with the bass eq’d out. Midrange balance is about on-par with the Beats Solo but the leaner and crisper-sounding Beats have slightly better clarity.

 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 given any of the other options in this lineup – 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.

 

Sony MDR-XB700


For headphones hailing from a mainstream manufacturer’s ‘Extra Bass’ 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 in my portable headphone review thread 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. Moreover, they compete very well with the pricier fashion phones in this lineup without deviating from the bass-forward sound and mainstream availability of the others.

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 the deepest and most forward of the bunch, 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 is the most recessed of the group but the mids themselves are surprisingly clear and articulate regardless, with a slight drop in lower-midrange fullness compared to the XB500 and Phiaton MS400. Clarity is quite good – a bit better than with the Beats Solo and Crossfade and on-par with the 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 in terms of sound quality it is a solid alternative to the pricier sets discussed here. 


 

Sennheiser HD25-1


Since the HD25-1 has been reviewed extensively in the past by others, can be found in my portable review thread, and is more of a usability benchmark for the consumer-class headphones featured here, it is really just along for the ride in this section. I’ve owned the HD25 for around a year and a half now, and while I am not completely happy with the sound they produce, they are still by far the best grab-and-go solution I’ve found for portable use. In terms of sound quality, the HD25s are well-balanced, have good clarity and detail, and are quite transparent when it comes to sources. The bass is tight and accurate, a bit soft in character compared to the V-Moda Crossfade and Dr Dre Beats Solo but still plenty punchy on the whole. Sub-bass rumble is not something the HD25 has ever been good at but extension is impressive. For a portable headphone the north-of-balanced bass quantity of the HD25 is just right without competing for bass monster status and the low end never bleeds into the midrange.

The mids themselves are neutral, clear, and detailed, with good definition all around. Towards the top of the midrange, the HD25-1 struggles to stay smooth and as a result is very unforgiving of sibilant tracks. There is a slight metallic ‘tinge’ to the lower treble, especially compared to warmer and darker-sounding sets such as the MS400, and the HD25 can come off a bit edgy and clinical at times. Overall, however, the treble response is strong and crisp, with solid extension and no loss in articulation all the way up. Being the pro-oriented set that it is, the HD25-1 has good instrumental separation and keeps track of individual instruments quite well considering its rather sub-par soundstaging. Indeed, compared even to the B&W P5, the HD25-1 sounds quite forward and a bit closed-in. On the whole, however, the sound of HD25 is quite likeable, impressing with the controlled-yet-impactful low end and excellent clarity across the range.

 Of course, this has all been written countless times before and the HD25 isn’t on trial here. As a benchmark, the HD25 works to separate itself from the other headphones by emphasizing balance and clarity over the entire frequency range. Though the HD25 is more than punchy enough for my liking, it competes with the B&W P5 for having the least low-end power and rumble of the group and the cleanest midrange and treble. It can be argued that the muted treble presentation of the P5 makes it a bit dull and lifeless, which the HD25 certainly is not, but that’s more of a preference call. To my ears, the HD25-1, though slightly bright and metallic-sounding, is less colored on the whole than any other headphone in this lineup, but ‘neutral’ and ‘natural’ are not necessarily congruent qualities. Those looking for the best clarity and detail to be had from a portable will be better off with the HD25 than any of the others here. However, those in search of a musical experience rather than a professional monitoring tool may find them too detached and clinical to be enjoyable, which is why sets like the B&W P5 and Phiaton MS400 are very much worth discussing. Personally, I can see myself keeping either, but only as a compliment to the HD25.

Ranking: HD25-1 > P5 = MS400 > XB700 > Beats Solo > Crossfade LP


 

Scoring


As a simple way of numerically scoring the comparisons, I assigned values to the placements in each category – for example the ranking of 


P5 = HD25-1 > MS400 > XB700 > Beats Solo > Crossfade LP

Means that the P5 and HD25-1 are both in 1st place (1 point), the MS400 is 2nd (2 pts), and so forth. Both (=) and (>=) are treated as a tie. Here are the point totals with sound quality given double weight. Lower is better (higher average ranking) and the best possible result is 6 points.

Sennheiser HD25-1: 9 points
Bowers & Wilkins P5: 10 points
Phiaton MS400: 16 points
Sony MDR-XB700: 18 points
V-Moda Crossfade LP: 20 points
Monster Beats by Dr Dre Solo: 21 points

The scores, with no doctoring on my part, split up neatly into three tiers, with the HD25-1 and B&W P5 taking up the top tier (with a negligible split), the MS400 and XB700 taking the middle spot, and the Beats Solo and Crossfade LP bringing up the rear.

 

 

Value & Conclusions

 

Phiaton MS400


Originally limited in appeal by its high price and flashy color scheme, the MS400 remains one of my favourite higher-end portable headphones and is only made more attractive by the current retail price point (~$170) and the recent introduction of the all-black version. Arguably the prettiest and certainly one of the most versatile headphones in this lineup, the MS400 combines convenience, comfort, and isolation with an addictively competent take on bass-heavy, mainstream sound. I’ve had no trouble recommending these to friends and family and I certainly won’t have any qualms about recommending them to fellow Head-Fiers.

 

Bowers & Wilkins P5


The B&W P5 is the youngest and 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 that also happens to be absurdly expensive to replace. 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.

 

Monster Beats by Dr Dre Solo


Much-maligned around Head-Fi, the Beats by Dr Dre line is neither tuned nor marketed in a way that would appeal to audiophiles. 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 $180 asking price when the better-built, more comfortable, and arguably prettier Phiaton MS400 costs less.

 

V-Moda Crossfade LP


Perhaps the most disappointing headphone in the lineup, the V-Moda Crossfade LP began raising my expectations as soon as I opened the outer carton – 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 the other 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, $60 worth of style, and $40 worth of sound.

 

Sony MDR-XB700


The odd one out in this lineup of expensive portable headphones, the XB700 nevertheless performs very well against the pricier Monster and V-Moda models. The combination of smooth but heavy bass and recessed but crisp mids and treble 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 the other cans tested here. That said, if Monster made a headphone that sounded this good in a portable form factor, it would be priced well above $200.

 

Sennheiser HD25-1


Not much remains to be said for the HD25-1 that hasn’t already been written many times over by myself and others. Despite being the oldest and (arguably) ugliest set here, the HD25-1 is still on another level altogether when it comes to sonic balance and detail, which is not to say that it is sonically perfect. Far from it, in fact - the HD25 can come off as dull and rather compressed-sounding because of the narrow stage and the bright treble can be fatiguing for those used to warmer and softer-sounding headphones. Interestingly, while most headphones sound good when listened to on their own – call it brain burn-in, poor audio memory, whatever – but reveal that they are flawed in this way or that when pitted directly against competitors, the HD25-1 shines its brightest as soon as it is matched against another headphone. Even relatively strong competitors such as the  ATH-ESW9A, MS400, and B&W P5 accentuate just how competent an all-rounder the 6-year-old studio headphone really is. As long as looks aren’t a priority, the HD25-1 is still just as easy to recommend as ever when pitted against these consumer-grade sets and will once again remain at the top of my portable stable until the next serious competitor falls into my hands.


Edited by ljokerl - 2/5/11 at 4:00pm
post #2 of 187

Thank you for yet another wonderful review :) Just wondering why isn't ESW9 included in the match-up? It is not considered to be mainstream enough?

post #3 of 187

wow...one more great and comprehensive review...BRAVO ljokerl! Glad to see my beloved Phiaton MS400 included again! 

post #4 of 187
Thread Starter 


 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Randius View Post

Thank you for yet another wonderful review :) Just wondering why isn't ESW9 included in the match-up? It is not considered to be mainstream enough?



Well that's part of it (plus I wouldn't really call it bass-heavy) but mostly it's because I don't have the ESW9 anymore. It's in my long portable headphone thread, though.

post #5 of 187

Great review. It must have been difficult to compare 6 headphones at the same era. I find it hard to do a comparison among 2 pairs, plugging and unplugging the jack and remembering the sound details. But thats why your joker and not me B).  Nevertheless i was disappointed by crossfade LP because as you said accessories rock and i would buy a pair only for the exosceleton case!  Other reviewers do mention the extreme bass oriented sound and recessed treble but its not a deal breaker in their papers and it can be fixed a bit by the eq. (Cnet review is one of them).Well things seems a bit different.

post #6 of 187

Team Phiaton *high five

post #7 of 187

Thanks for another amazing review! I would argue that the MS400 isn't "mainstream", but I'm still glad you included it in the review. Can't wait for mine to arrive. biggrin.gif

post #8 of 187
I'm glad the beats finally got a nice detailed review. I've never been a fan of their sound, but they do look nice.
post #9 of 187

i think the worlds trying to make me buy a P5

post #10 of 187

Thanks ljokerl. I wonder how the Solo HD would have fared in the review.

post #11 of 187

Well, may be Beats Solo is up to the reputation monster beats have here. lol! I am disappointed with beats solo too. I find the beats tour much better when compared to solo...

post #12 of 187
Thread Starter 


 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Angelopsaro View Post
Nevertheless i was disappointed by crossfade LP because as you said accessories rock and i would buy a pair only for the exosceleton case!  Other reviewers do mention the extreme bass oriented sound and recessed treble but its not a deal breaker in their papers and it can be fixed a bit by the eq. (Cnet review is one of them).Well things seems a bit different.


Well, the Crossfade has bigger issues than just balance - the drivers simply aren't very clean and resolving, resulting in smearing. You can get rid of the bass with the EQ but you can't equalize clarity. 



Quote:
Originally Posted by macrocheesium View Post

Thanks for another amazing review! I would argue that the MS400 isn't "mainstream", but I'm still glad you included it in the review. Can't wait for mine to arrive. biggrin.gif


Mainstream in sound, not so much availability (though I thought they'd be moving in that direction by now).



Quote:
Originally Posted by bubsdaddy View Post

Thanks ljokerl. I wonder how the Solo HD would have fared in the review.


How do the regular Solos compare to the HD cosmetically? Quick google search shows that the Solo has a matte finish while my set was definitely glossy but I don't know how accurate that is. Mine could have been the HD for all I know or maybe Monster revised the cosmetics at some point.

post #13 of 187

I don't know how joker finds time to juggle all these great threads.  Kudos!

Audio Technica probably also deserves a mention in this thread.  ATH-ESW9A?  They sure look sexy.

post #14 of 187


 

Quote:
Originally Posted by jjmai View Post

I don't know how joker finds time to juggle all these great threads.  Kudos!

Audio Technica probably also deserves a mention in this thread.  ATH-ESW9A?  They sure look sexy.


He addressed this a little earlier...

 



Quote:
Originally Posted by ljokerl View Post

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Randius View Post

Thank you for yet another wonderful review :) Just wondering why isn't ESW9 included in the match-up? It is not considered to be mainstream enough?



Well that's part of it (plus I wouldn't really call it bass-heavy) but mostly it's because I don't have the ESW9 anymore. It's in my long portable headphone thread, though.

post #15 of 187

Awesome review! I already got the HD25, so my next target will be the P5:)

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