Though reception of past Skullcandy products here on Head-Fi has been mixed at best, there is no denying that the company is one of the world’s biggest and most influential headphone brands. The reasons are numerous, but Skullcandy’s direct and tangible role in getting consumers to see the headphone as an accessory is undoubtedly a big one. Clearly, headphones are seen as more than just converters of electrical signals into mechanical waves by Skullcandy's development team. However, it would be impossible for them not to possess a fair amount of audio expertise, which brings us to the upper end of the company's product line. The subject of this overview is the flagship offering, dubbed the “Mix Master” - a full-size headphone developed in collaboration with American DJ Mix Master Mike.
As with most consumer electronics, the headphone market is naturally segmented into dozens of categories. Not surprisingly, a set designed for in-flight use won’t usually do well for tracking in a studio, and vice versa. Skullcandy’s flagship tries to hit two far less disparate segments, billing itself as both a professional DJ set and consumer-friendly competition for sets like the Beats by Dre Studio. The feature list is impressive, with everything from ambidextrous cable input to full iPod/iPhone remote control, but at $300 the Mix Master faces stiff competition from established Hi-Fi and Pro Audio brands. For the purposes of this review the Mix Master faced off against several upper-tier portable and studio headphones from my collection, including the Sennheiser HD25-1, V-Moda M-80, and Ultrasone HFI-780 and PRO 750.
Packaging & Accessories
Cleaning cloth and 6.3mm (1/4”) adapter
Semi-hard carrying case
Like most DJ headphones in its class, the Mix Master ships in a hefty cardboard box. Once the outer sleeve is removed, the box splits in the middle and slides open to reveal a well-made plastic tray holding the headphones and a slew of accessories. Pack-ins include a carrying case, two cables, a cleaning cloth, and a 1/4" adapter.
The carrying case features metal inlays of the Skullcandy and Mix Master Mike logos and can be collapsed flat when not in use. It doesn’t provide the protection of an Ultrasone or V-Moda hard case but doesn’t take up as much room, either. Behind the padding of the case is a mesh pocket holding a soft cleaning cloth – a must for keeping the glossy finish fingerprint-free. Two cables are included - 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 as well as threading on the 3.5mm L-plug for the included 6.3mm adapter. The portable cable is straight, ~4.5’ in length, and features an iPhone-compatible 3-button mic/remote unit. The iPhone cable is not threaded, presumably to protect the headphones in case of snags. Overall, the accessory pack is very complete and fully capable of endearing the Mix Master to both of its target audiences.
Design & Build Quality
Folded, cable detached
Unfolded, cable attached
Designed in large part for the DJ use, the Mix Master packs an impressive feature set – it is easily the most feature-rich headphone I’ve come across so far. Aside from touches found on other DJ headphones, such as ambidextrous single-sided cabling for left- or right-sided use and a collapsible and flat-folding structure, the Mix Master includes a dual-state mute button – a feature I’ve only seen on Noise Cancelling headphones in the past – as well as a unique feature dubbed ‘Cue Control’. Cue Control automatically mixes stereo into mono when one of the earcups is rotated for single-ear monitoring, allowing the DJ to retain both audio channels. Casual users get their own set of features - a shorter, straight cable complete with a full iPhone-compatible remote and integrated mic.
The design of the headphone itself is flashy, but functional. The hinge and headband design makes the Mix Master look rather sleek on the head compared to most DJ sets. Glossy plastics are used throughout, making the Mix Master a fingerprint magnet, and Skullcandy / MMM logos are abundant. They look nice enough but simply don’t have the solid feel or wear-resistant finish of most $300 Pro-oriented headphones. Then again, no Pro-oriented set carries Skullcandy's lifetime warranty, either.
Fit, Comfort, & Isolation
Perhaps the most striking 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 and the cups articulate in all directions for compliance with different head shapes. 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.
Passive noise isolation is a bit disappointing – the Mix Master behaves more like a semi-open headphone and doesn’t block out as much noise as a Sennheiser HD25-1 or the larger Hercules G501. It doesn’t leak too badly and should block out enough external noise for use while commuting but definitely won’t work on a plane or subway.
Driver configuration: 50mm Dynamic
Frequency response: 20 to 20,000 Hz
Impedance: 19 Ω
Cord Length: 4.5 ft (1.4 m) I-plug
Note: Most of my listening was done using a Cowon J3 or an iBasso D10 DAC fed by an optical signal, and my FLAC audio library.
For reference, reviews of most other headphones I have heard can be found in my portable headphone review thread here.
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 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, allowing the tone to remain 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 compensates for the low isolation of the headphone and allows them to work better in noisy environments.
Value & Conclusion (MSRP: $299.95)
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 offerings from Pro Audio brands such as Audio-Technica, Sony, and AKG, but then it is one of the most feature-rich products out there. Features such as Cue Control and ambidextrous cable input are excellent additions for DJ use, and then there is Skullcandy's lifetime replacement warranty - something no competitor can match. Unfortunately, the Mix Master seems to have a bit of an identity problem - some of the amenities and design elements clearly target the general consumer, who would derive only limited benefit from the Mix Master's competence as a DJ set.
The Mix Master does have the makings of a great mainstream headphone, producing plenty of quality bass and meshing well with modern recordings. It is also 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, however, 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. I just hope that Skullcandy can find enough of those in their customer base to preserve interest in developing more models with a focus on fidelity.
Edited by ljokerl - 4/3/12 at 1:14pm