Did someone hear them?
Let me begin by acknowledging outright this is my first post. As a long time reader on headfi I appreciate this is cause for skepticism, especially since I'm posting in praise of the Phonons. The reason I write this is because I've been a longtime *reader* on head-fi. The listings here inspired me to buy a pair of Earsonics SM3 and helped affirm my decision to buy a pair of Denon AHD-2000. Additionally I first discovered head-fi years ago while bored at my office job in New York, and looking to kill time reading about my beloved Sennheiser IE8s, and my slightly less beloved Shure 535 (I have a love hate relationship with them... sometimes so right... sometimes so... where is the bass!?!?) I also have some Grado 225i's Lastly, to help introduce myself on the forum, I am currently listening to a pair of Phonons through a Corda Headfive amp which I purchased on ebay. If I'm not mistaken (though I could be) the headfive was initially built for and promoted to head fi users.
Beyond my headphone fettish I listen through a pair of Dynaudio BM15a powered speakers, and sometimes I also listen on a pair of Wharfdale three way tower speakers, and or an original pair of acoustic research powered partners, the ones with the 15watt amps and very flat response... before advent bought them and made them flabby with more power and lesser drivers.
Anyway... So, the Phonons.
A little over a week ago, as has been mentioned elsewhere here on headfi, the New York Times ran an article about the current state of audiophile culture. Towards the end of the article an employee at Stereo Exchange made a series of gear recommendations including one for the Phonon SMB-02 headphones... describing them as "the holy grail" of headphones. Price $350.
As you can tell from my preface to this post, I fall precisely into the demographic of people this sort of catch phrase would be designed to entice. For those who might have been immediately skeptical, it is perhaps worth saying a few words about Stereo Exchange. Stereo Exchange is a high end audio institution in New York city. They have been around since the mid 80s and have long been a vendor for Mcintosh amps, B&W speakers, and yes, back in the day, they carried Stax Electrostatic headphones in store.
So, as a New Yorker, when I read a Stereo Exchange employe recommend these headphones, I was inclined to indulge my compulsion and go check them out.
I went to the store, and auditioned them on (what I believe was a Levinson) stand alone dac /headphone amp connected to a laptop with lossless files. With a limited range of sample material on the laptop I opted to listen to "Us and Them" from Darkside... because... well... who doesn't know this album inside and out from an audiophile audition perspective?
I was really, really impressed. The bass was tight, and everything about them was fast. As noted above, my flagship headphones to date have been the Denons. They are lush, lush, lush and wonderful... but they are not tight and fast. The Phonons immediately struck me with their combination of low end discipline and deep bass extension. There was also a tremendous clarity-... Ok. Fine... I was standing in a retail store. The headphones already came recommended in the Times, and via Stereo Exchange. "What's to wonder?" I figured. So... I placed a down payment on a pair from their pending next shipment.
Following this impulse decision a little bit of "buyers remorse" kicked in. Gee... that was silly... one New York Times write up and I'm dropping $350?
When I came into work the next day I started reading about the Phonons here on head fi. First things first, the review by Phatalleycat made me feel better. But then I started seeing posts that raised very fair questions. Tomb's post really made me feel nervous. Yeah... contact cleaner with *nanodiamonds*?!?!? And then I visited the site. What the *heck* does "subtonic" mean? I mean... the tonic is what defines the key for a piece of music sooo.... What? Are these headphones guaranteed to make everything sound flat and off pitch?
But then I remembered everything sounded great in the store. What could be the prob-... oooh... wait a minute. That Levinson DAC headphone amp! I hadn't A/B'd the Phonons against anything else! Maybe it was that outboard DAC and amp that sounded so good!
Feeling very foolish, I resolved to check the same Pink Floyd tracks through some more familiar headphones when Ron at Stereo Exchange called me up yesterday to say my Phonons were in. Since I own a pair of Grado 225 i's and I spotted those hanging on Stereo Exchange's wall right by the Phonons when I stopped in last night, I made a point of listening to a few tracks through them first.
This time the very familiar sound of the Grados served to establish a basis of comparison. When I tried the Phonons again... it was once again clear to me that they were just amazing. This wasn't due to any other gear in the signal chain... This was because of the headphones.
Reassured, I bought the Phonons and have been listening to them for about a day.
So... here are my very preliminary findings... Someone well respected on headfi *has* to try these out.
While it gets a little ridiculous to say things like "holy grail" there is no question in my mind they do some things much much better than the Denons. They are a very very musical headphone. There is an astonishing amount of detail uncovered by them, but they are not even remotely fatiguing or clinical. In fact, I made a point of trying out the Grado 325 for the first time after completing my audition between the 225 and the Phonon. I've read about the Grado 325s for a while. So I figured I might as well check them out while I was there. Compared to the Phonons the 325s were to listening what using sandpaper instead of soap must be like to the sensation of touch. There was no detail the 325s found which was missing from the Phonons.... it was just far more grating and fatiguing listening on the 325s.
The only specific difference I can point to which might account for this, at least in part, would be the drastic reduction in bass information made available via the Grados compared with the Phonons.
Anyway... I've only had the Phonon's for about a day... so I don't mean to post this by way of a review. Rather I wanted to share an "in the trenches" experience. My goal is to inspire a trusted reviewer here on headfi to check out a pair. *I* would like to read the review :)
Until then, or towards that end, of encouraging someone trusted on headfi to check them out... here is just a little more info.
First off... these are definitely *not* the 7506s. ('Ive had a few pairs of those). The drivers are much much wider... (Think broader circles... not Sony ovals). Secondly, the build quality on these headphones is really ... well... crappy. Still... poor build quality is not entirely unheard of in prestige line headphones (cough... cough... Shure se530 anyone? ... cough.... cough...) Actually, come to think of it, the lush and pleather swathed Denon AHD 2000 comes plagued with a well known / documented design flaw with the screws mounting the ear pieces to the the headband. So... come to think of it, even though these headphones use obviously low rent build materials, they still wind up being better engineered than some other higher rent headphones.
Even so... it will be really interesting to see what a phonon smb-03 looks like. There is so much room to improve here, given the very skinny cable on the 02 and the cheap plastic form factor.
As for the sound... well, as headphones that fit over the ear, they of course *don't* actually *sound* like the Earsonics SM3... still, I can compare them to that headphone in the sense that it isn't possible to say whether this is a basshead headphone, a mid lovers headphone, or a treble phile phone. *Everything* is there... and nothing is out in front... at least that's the way it seems to me after my admitted one day of hearing them.
It is far too early, after that one day, for me to say *anything* like "holy grail"... but what is absolutely clear to me is that these are *Not* Sony 7506s. I don't know the audio technica phones someone else pegged them as looking like. If it turns out these are Audio Technicas... well then... ok... I guess I like Audio Technica... Still... I can say these are noticably and palpably better than the Grado 225 and 325 (ok... listening is subjective... so I can't say that... but they produce much more bass than either of those headphones, they present bass very tightly and in such a way that none of the details and high end clarity available from the Grados is missing from the Phonons). The fact that the Phonons are actually closed back, and still represent much of the detail and "air" made available by the Grado open back headphones is another indication that there is something pretty special going on here.
I still haven't had a chance to properly A/B them with my Denon 2000s. I am almost afraid to fall out of love with my Denons. The one thing that is clear to me is that the bass on the Phonons is faster and tighter. Whether this is "better" is again subjective. But regardless of what one prefers or not... the point is these headphones have something to offer and can easily hold their own in the company of headphones in their price range ($300-$400). They therefore merrit consideration by all the headphone afficianados here on headfi... in my humble opinion.
Whether they are worth more than their price... well that's for a more seasoned golden ear to decide. Again, for now, let's just be clear these are a serious pair of headphones worthy of at least as much attention as their price range peers. To me they *do* sound noticably better than several of their peers (the Grados). What I haven't yet come to terms with, in my own mind anyway, is whether I think of these as being "reference monitor" worthy, or whether they are really "euphonic" headphones. There is no question in my mind they are "euphonic". They are fun, fun, fun to listen to, and I'm hearing lots of things for the first time. But whether I'm hearing things for the first time because they are "revealing" information, as opposed to just being voiced a bit differently than I'm acustomed to... well... that will be for the next several days of listening to sort out.
In the mean time, let me assure everyone out there from first hand experiece that 1)yes the build quality on these is lackluster. 2) These are not Sony clones 3) They easily hold their own with other headphones at their price poinit in direct A / B comparison. 4) They have a great bass extension, present bass tightly and with speed.
Looking forward to reading more about them here soon!
From my experience, one of the great things about Head-fi is the ability to search by headphone, and cross reference across threads. For this reason I thought I'd return to this inactive thread with an update about the Phonon's. With the passage of time I don't find I reach for these very much. But with that said I still think they are distinctive headphones. The reason I don't tend to reach for them, and the reason I still think well of them is that they offer very little in the way of soundstage.
I just recently posted about the Fidelio X2 and realized, in looking over my older post about the Phonons that soundstage is what the Phonon's lack (a thought that comes to mind since the X2 boasts an extraordinarily lavish and engrossing soundstage). Having written that, the Phonon's remain an extremely detailed, fast, and tight headphone. I still do turn to them when I am mixing or mastering audio.
I would describe them as providing very sharp and clear two dimensional images of three dimensional recordings. They tend to flatten things out. All detail, apart from that depth element of soundstage, is there though, and arguably, with less to engage the listener in terms of sound stage, it becomes easier to focus on other details... if one is looking for them... say in a mixing situation.
With that said, the limited soundstage means there is one less level of emotional enjoyment available for engaging with these headphones.
With the benefit of additional time I would also note these headphone are a bit lacking in sub bass. They do however remain among the tightest and fastest headphones I've heard in the bottom end, so there is something of a trade off here.
I've heard some Beyerdynamics which are perhaps a bit more useful as strict mastering headphones, because of their ruthless clinical, surgical accuracy. The phonons are definitely a less fatiguing and more "musical" headphone than the most precisely analytical headphones. So they fall into an odd space for me, where they are more enjoyable and pleasant to listen to than headphones which I would consider to be strictly utilitarian tools for a mix, but they also lack that added dimension of soundstage which makes it hard to turn to them first when looking for a lavish listening experience.
So I don't turn to them as often as some other pairs, but when I do, I find them to be *extraordinarily* detailed without being harsh grating or overly analytical. I find them especially enjoyable for listening to acoustic music, or any mid range-centric recording. I once spent an entire day walking around Manhattan listening repeatedly to Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" as performed by Pat Metheny on these and that memory still stands out for me as a high water mark among my headphone enthusiast experiences.
As an owner of the Shure se535 I would say there are some comparisons to be drawn between the two headphones. As an on / over ear design there is of course *muuuuch* more bass and bass presence to the Phonon's... but as with my experience of the 535s, there is something lacking in the lowest registers when compared to similar headphones in its category.
Throw a brilliantly engineered recording of an acoustic ensemble, or a soloist at these headphones and the experience is utterly engrossing. Throw a very complicated mix at them and it can become a little bit more noticeable what they lack ( in the case of phonons sub bass and soundstage).
I would still be curious to see more thoughtful coverage of these headphones on head fi. I definitely think they have a great deal going for them... but as judged by the fact I don't reach for them very often, I wouldn't suggest them as a primary headphone, or a "desert island" headphone for anyone. With that said, I do think they are a cut, or several cuts above some of the headphones people likened them to here initially (MDR V6, AT Mx50)... and I definitely prefer them quite a bit over grados of similar cost (taste of course being subjective). Despite their clunky plastic design I think they are an interesting "specialized" can.
For a jazz or chamber music lover I think they could come much closer to being a primary headphone. Similarly if speed and tight bass and mid bass are priorities these are quite enjoyable.