EDIT: Sorry this ended up being SOOO LONG; I'm actually exhausted myself! I don't see what I could take out though as I'm trying to address everything and everybody. Others I've given to read this said the same thing. I would like to mention though that only a single read is needed to grasp the idea; there isn't much too complicated here. If you'd like to know the gist of it, scroll down to the TL;DR. I've also included a "key" there for what indicates the more important things to read here and what can be glanced over. In any case, I think the post would regardless be generally informative to anyone.
With all the tweaks people make/suggest for headphones, we should all know by now how even the smallest differences IN PLACEMENT of the cans can alter the sound quite significantly. One of the biggest contributors as to the reason for this is of course the earpads. The headphone housing has a great effect as well with factors such as damping and things alike. What I would like to do here is provide a few things which would potentially optimize these headphones' performance before any mods would even be in mind. I remember putting on the headphones for the first time, wondering how best to wear them and how much, if at all, would it really makes a difference (things like what length to keep both sides adjusted at or how far forward or back to wear them). I guess that is where I'll start. This is all assuming that you've already done the research (or have done listening tests) and have come to the conclusion that these are the headphones you want to own over whatever others (not to say though that none of this may apply to other headphones, similar to the type). If I were to make a review for these (as such a long text would probably suggest), it would be very positive IN ALL ASPECTS, despite some of the inconsistencies which will be extrapolated on later.
NOTE: There is a great mod done for these by a user named KingPage. In that respect, this here is mostly all the easy but important things to do/bear in mind prior to doing anything else which may require TESTING, or therefore, any modification. You'd want to take care of and/or at least keep in mind as many variables as possible which may end up conflicting or canceling each other out. In my case, the mod suggestion I'll be making (the last bullet point) has to do with the earpads.
Update: More than half a year later, having experienced an infinite amount of sources more with these headphones (sources meaning all kinds of amps and all types of musical genres and forms of mastering for them), and having been around different studios, gaining the practical (rather than theoretical) experience of monitoring, I am compelled to argue that this mod (plus KingPage's) is what takes these headphones that small but powerful step from being great.. to perfect. KingPage's mod is that step as I guess it pertains more to the professional world, while the one mentioned here would pertain more to the consumer world (for casual listening). Neither side steps on the other in this case I would say.
- BREAK-IN/BURN-IN: Probably the most important thing to do (for reasons regarding what's to follow), but only if you've just or recently purchased the headphones (may otherwise be too late), it's a good idea to burn and break these headphones in, the latter of which I'm sure would very much be in your favor to do so. There are many methods for burning in headphones, and I won't get into them here, but WHAT I PERSONALLY DO is leave my music playing (which I have balanced by my own implementation of ReplayGain), of all sorts, at a level which I feel is the maximum volume I'd ever listen to what would be the "LOUDEST" material I have. That's important because if you set it to the loudest level of, for instance, the "QUIETEST" song in your collection, the drivers may actually be damaged by content you have which is relatively louder. I do this, by the way, using a source which I feel has a high enough level of accuracy (one I'd preferably be listening from in the first place, certainly if detail is what I'm after). One of the most important things I think that entails is a fast response. What that basically means is something which works efficiently and responds well to transients. That of course rules out most (if not all) tube amps; it also likely rules out any headphone outs from a home theater receiver and most likely your laptop/desktop headphone outs as well. Actually, something like an Apple devices or some other above average dedicated "music playback" device would be best, for lack of an alternative. For more in-depth reasons, not to get into here, for these headphones, I also minimally boost the bass with whatever it is I burn them in with. If you'd like details and reasoning, you may ask for it . There is actually a lot of controversy surrounding the things mentioned here so take them as you will. I don't find any arguments against the idea of burn-in compelling or logical at all, but that's just me. I have no scientific data, testing, or even unquestionable analysis to prove this on my own, but this is what my knowledge and experience leads me to believe and it happens to comply with others' accounts and others' testing of this. There have been tests that go against this but NOT finding something isn't proof that it's not there. However, the opposite is more often true.
When it comes to break-in, the point here would be that the headband loosens over time. As I implied in the beginning of the bullet point here, with explanations to follow, this "loosening" factor inevitably leads to changes of how the headphones sit on your head, and therefore, how the headphones sound. For the purpose of accurate first impressions, proper testing, and figuring out proper adjustments (in any respect), I recommend finding and putting them on something that's maybe slightly wider than the width of your head (just put them on and then slowly take them off to measure the distance). You can also spend this time burning them in. Try to afford that luxury. I'd say from 50-75 hours would be best. The point is that it should be for that amount of time straight, only to be transferred from that platform to your head, if so desired, or another platform of similar width. I'd also say that just because the option exists, with no hard facts to indicate any negative effects otherwise, select the worse half of the earpads to do this with, but certainly so if the object you found to place the headphones around isn't flat or doesn't have enough depth to support the full width of the cups. The standards by which to make that assessment will be listed further on.
- HEADPHONE TILT: Ideally, if not obvious, the headphone band should be angled upwards. In other words, if you're standing straight and looking forward, whatever would be perpendicular to the floor. Based on that premise, if uncomfortable, slightly angled more FORWARD would actually be the best. This may seem to be the opposite to what logic may suggest, as angled more BACK would be more in accordance with the tilt of your ears. In any case, this nuance is of the least important. As long as the headband isn't blocking your vision or in the way of the cushion behind your head, you're fine . I think for this, the comfortability factor compels you to wear them the right way anyway.
- HEADBAND LENGTH: The best way to determine what length to set each side is to start by having them close to fully out and then working your way down. It's important for each side to be distanced equally so that pressure is evenly distributed on both sides. Place both cups in the palm of your hands (like the way you would if you were to imagine them without the headband). With that image in mind, place the cups on your ears in a way that they feel centered. Now, try to position them as close as you can downwards and back, so that the upper part of your ear is as close as possible to the inner padding (which is technically how you'd be putting them on every time). Once you've done that, the goal is for the headband to be adjusted to then barely be touching the top part of your head. Yes, "headphone hair" is an issue XD. Keeping the cups in position, adjust each side by one click down at a time, and once it's close, you could use your pinky to determine the spacing. It should be so that you barely have room for your pinky to start to fit. ALMOST EVERYTHING HERE has to do with the effects there are of the direction of sound towards our ears. As something I've always perceived and now conceptually understand (what it is that contributes to our reception of this fact), it is something our ears are very good at interpreting and translating...
This may have been wordy and continue to be so, but a lot of it is really just a one time thing, and once you put them on a few times after having made the adjust(s), it'll really make sense, even in terms of comfort; it won't be something you have to think about every time in the future. It may for some actually seem to be less comfortable at first than what you may have gotten used to, as the approach behind this may be different to what would be to whomever by default. It may be further back on the head than you're used to for example, especially if you have long hair. In the end though, by all accounts, it should really be MORE comfortable, despite the potential initial impressions. You should find that even after extended listening periods that the pads, being aligned in such a way, don't hurt your ears during or after you have listened and have taken them off.
I've noticed that instead of putting them on from the top, there are people who force the headphones onto their face from the front and then keep them as minimally on as possible. Generally though, that's people who don't plan on wearing them long. I'm sure over time they may realize their ears starting to hurt and make adjustments accordingly. Or, of course, they may just say the headphones are uncomfortable and that'd be that (-trying really hard not to express my frustration XD)...
EARS HURTING: If after a while wearing them your ears start to hurt, most likely the cushioning for the earpads is either lacking or deficient in some other way. I've noticed that with thin or flimsy pads (which is increasingly how they are shipped), just from the mere fact that your ear touches the net on the inside, it could start to hurt or otherwise just simply feel uncomfortable. Apart from that, if you feel that's not the case, then in respect to the prior recommendation(s), the headphones are likely sitting too low on your head and have actually been sitting on your ears, even if just slightly. In that case, you can compromise the quality a little by adjusting one or both sides one click down (one click less), which would raise the headphones up a little, relative to the band which holds them in position. (I say "compromise quality" because if adjusted as was suggested above, adjusting the length further from that point would likely ANGLE the cups further upward relative to what would be the direct path of entry to your ears.) If you notice IT STILL hurts after a while, then either you should try re-approximating the length as was suggested and see if you get a different result. If that still doesn't work, and you have tried adjusting them one or maybe now two clicks shorter, then maybe your ears are simply too big, more so than mine, lol. I have pretty big ears, but if that really is the situation for you, then I don't imagine there being any position that would be comfortable for extended periods of time, with ANY headphones. I think this is as big as headphones get circumference wise, unfortunately in that case for you...
But anyway, this suggested adjustment becomes especially important with time when the headband might start to get further stretched out and looser. What happens is that the cups aren't held as tightly in place anymore, so doing this helps distribute/focus the applied pressure better for how the headphones sit on your head. If you do/did this initially, the process may need to be repeated, likely requiring a click shorter. Typically, the perfect size for people seems to be between 2-5 on each side (where I consider the first line mark on the metal coil to be size 3). But I mean, of course for a little kid or something, he/she would likely need to wear them at size 0. For me, after the band has really stretched out, it has become 2 on one side and 3 on the other. It used to be 3 on both, and it really does make more of a difference now.
I'm sure you'll visually start to notice this aforementioned change when you see how the ear-cups start to grow in distance from each other when you take them off. That's not to say that there's a need to obsess and constantly check, but if over time you start to notice changes on how they sit on your head, this is probably what's going on. Some people like them after they get loose (comfort-wise); I personally don't, and interestingly enough, the sound does tend to get "looser" along with this change. If you'd like, that can be defined.
- EARPADS: The most important thing to take into consideration, to which all this largely applies to, are the earpads. Now, if you were wondering if the pads' depth makes a difference, well, it does. As a matter of fact, probably anything that you can think of makes a difference. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but most likely if you even remotely questioned the quality of your earpads and you considered potential drawbacks of this fact, what you thought was probably right. Just like speakers in a room, before the sound gets to your ears, it is first reformatted by the space which it occupies. That may not determine the sound's "signature quality" usually, but it does determine a large portion of how you perceive what you're hearing. I think we can very safely assume that the headphones' sound was optimized using some sort of a dummy of the assumed average human head shape, using perfect earpads. So, the point here is, any alteration from that scenario will make a difference and the problem comes with manufacturing and the attention paid, or lack thereof, of psychoacoustics. As for the reason for the pads' INconsistency in manufacturing, that I don't know. I don't think it has much to do with packaging though (unless maybe the pads lay around in there for a REALLY long time, in that smushed position the headphones come in) because the foam actually seems quite durable. When just receiving the headphones, take them out and let them breathe for an hour, see what happens, and only then you should proceed making judgments as the following criteria would suggest...
The branding I have of these in particular are the Brainwavz, and having ordered many pairs from them already, the quality of the pads I've noticed has consistently been decreasing in quality. The initial two pairs I purchased had at least 3 out of 4 of the pads in practically perfect condition. What "perfect" means is this: there's barely any folds on them (which would entail that there is enough cushioning/foam in there to actually keep the leather in place); the pads are fully stuffed where the leather is therefore visibly firm (it's fairly obvious when that's not the case I think); when compressed, the pads quickly spring back up; the outer, bordering, stitched line isn't curved inward and/or one of the sides of the earpad doesn't concave when put on (usually, I would think also obvious when so); similar to the previous point, the border of the foam on the inside lines up evenly with the stitched lines on the borders; and finally, while pressing your thumb around them, they feel even all around. Flaws in any one of these areas can detrimentally impact the sound, especially if the pad on one side differs from the other. It may sound obsessive, and you'd be right in thinking "it's just pads" to the degree which you possibly think that, but if you look at it this way, in that sense, that's exactly why something so basic shouldn't be the cause OF ANY problems, be that whatever it may. Uneven padding creates an unbalance in the sound which has actually gotten many people to think that the drivers are to blame. The staging is then off-center and not even consist throughout the frequencies, and that could really do some mind trickery and be extremely annoying. Something like this could even happen with a "perfect" earpad on one side and a "good" one on the other, where logically, the only difference between them is the size, or more accurately, the "inner-width". This happened to me with one of my pairs. To be honest, I don't even get it as the side with the "wider" pad was the one which was louder and which had more treble... I would imagine it the other way around but maybe rather than the concaved/extra cushioning on the inside absorbing some of the sound, the smaller spacing focused it? I don't know, but this wider/only "good" pad that I mentioning had the smallest defect of them all (which practically all the pads have, but this one I guess slightly more so than the rest), which was simply that the border of the foam didn't perfectly line up with the stitching. Basically, because of it, along the side there was a bump. The side doesn't concave though...
This inconsistency of the pads is actually what sets these headphones behind some others in my recommendation list, I guess just because of the type/size that they are. When perfect though, it's what sets them above all other cans, and in general, when it comes to comfort. But, going back to their effects, when they seem worn and/or flimsy, the headphones are pushed closer to your ears which lessens the soundstage and ruins separation (poorer imaging). It also muddies the bass and creates inconsistencies/random spikes in the some of the higher frequencies (all of which have been complaints sometimes by people). The good news though is, if you get good quality pads, they REALLY DO last. Since the HM5's release (about half a year of owning and wearing them consistently), that hasn't even been a long enough for me to guess their duration... (Update: still no idea after over a year of rigorous usage...)
In any case, unlike how the pads may just be packaged with the headphones, buying them individually should not be a problem. If so, a complaint really needs to be made. I haven't purchased enough to say for sure, but from MP4Nation.net, unfortunately, that seems to be the case. Guys, please be aware of this problem, and assuming I've convinced you of the relevance and importance of this matter, we should let it be known. You pay for the quality - comfort and sound, and this lack of attention towards what I am sure is practically an easy problem to solve is compromising your investment. More priority should be given to the quality of the pads being distributed, and if it's not directly up to the likes of MP4 Nation (Brainwavz), Fischer Audio, or Jaycar, they are still the ones in the position to achieve a standard (which is marketable) to which customers would have a reason to choose their product over the others'. In the end, that may lead to better manufacturing of them in the first place. I wouldn't mind paying $2 more even for a pair if I was guaranteed consistency. The way it is now (already expensive), it's more frustrating because you essentially just throw your money in the garbage or just end up inconveniencing yourself for it.
- Often, one side of the pads is shaped straighter than the other side. So, the rounded side should be put on facing back. This is really for comfort purposes and it just has to do with the shape of your ear. I haven't seen a case for this yet, but theoretically, if in the back of your head you could feel a space where the sound could leak from the headphones, you'd put the pads on the other way. For earpads already attached and that are facing the same direction as it pertains here, you could just switch them around. For one the wrong way, flip the plastic plate upside down. Personally though, I don't like when the bottom parts of the pads (whichever you consider that to be) are opposite ways, but that's neither here or there...
For stubborn, apathetic, and willfully ignorant people, I actually purposely flip the pads the other way so that they're forced to move the headphones further back for comfort since they're above all the quality ********, hehe. As I've mentioned, many people have the tendency to not place the headphones fully on their ears for some reason.
- This last part is really mostly regarding the mod actually. So firstly, I noticed from the very beginning when giving the headphones to people to try, for most of them the pads got compressed on the top more than on the bottom, if even at all on the bottom. The only reason it caught my attention then and kind of bothered me was because I imagined the pads wearing unevenly over time for which I thought of a "trick" where I'd simply flip them from time-to-time to make them last longer. That's of course also before I realized how long they actually last. If given a blind test, even a year later, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to tell the difference which side of the pads are which just based on density. But secondly, and more importantly, this isn't how the headphones should be sitting on your head in the first place. I'm honestly not sure if any of these factors, especially this one, was taken into account when designed, but regardless of the fact, by default, it certainly doesn't sound as good as the suggested design of the earpads.
Tying this out of curiosity after seeing how on an average person these headphones didn't apply pressure evenly between the top and bottom, I noticed one day that when I pressed down on the bottom of the headphones, the sound seemed to "improve". At that point, "better sound" was too general of an interpretation I thought I had, and despite feeling differently, I thought that I may be mistaking loudness with any actual improvement. I decided to listen going back and forth, pressing on the cable connectors so that I wouldn't feel the vibrations of the sound when pushing down. That could otherwise have also given a false impression. I found that pushing down too hard made the sound a little harsh, kind of a similar effect to what it was with flimsy/thin earpads. In the end, I found it to be ideal when the pressure/distancing was even between the top and bottom. That may have actually been how it was intended by design but in any case, what I was hearing made sense to me (I always try to be very cautious of the placebo effect - very powerful and common for audio). As I said at some point, distancing matters, and this "balance" I find perfect.
When the lower part of the cups are pushed down and the earpads are compressed on the bottom, bass becomes clearer (in presence it's quite significantly more forward), bass also becomes harmonically more accurate (you can hear its timbre more distinctly, and because of that, I guess you can say slightly louder), mids become slightly more prominent, and the sound overall is generally more direct and seemingly present. Also, overall, the sound is obviously a bit louder. The signature characteristics of the headphones I wouldn't say changes (which ironically many have different ideas for what that is due to this very issue of variations in the earpads). It does however make them sound more like closed vs. open cans I guess. It's what they are and it's what I personally prefer anyway, especially when there's practically no compromise in soundstage separation. Speaking of which, soundstage also remains unaffected. This adjustment/difference can best be described as sounding more "live". I can try and make a list of songs I feel this difference is best represented, or rather, where it'd be the easiest to make a distinction. I mean, you can honestly even tell the improvement in the characteristics of one's voice if you listen to a consistent recording of a person talking, maybe a video of someone on YouTube who recorded the sound with decent quality. (Maybe try SxePhil? There may be too much gain set for his microphone, but even with that as the case, it still works well for me.) Aside from differences in frequency response, the reason for this effect can very easily be attributed to our ability to perceive direction. By default, the headphones are essentially angled downward and we perceive that as a more distant sound. When brought slightly closer and angled more forward, the result is of course more engaging.
I'd say the modification to then have the pads have one side thicker and one side thinner applies to everyone, although it's important to note that there are exceptions where it'd already be good as is. My friend for instance has a very flat head, kind of like it was smashed from both sides by two cars (hopefully he doesn't read this, lol), so on him, the headphones actually sit quite evenly. I'd have to be him to really know if there's an improvement, but the trade-off seems to be regardless that now they just don't really compress at all. This makes it so that there are holes in the soundstage. The equivalent for me would be to instead pull the upper side of the headphones out. In any case, I'm sure that the evenness wouldn't be the result just for people with hammer heads though (I REALLY hope my friend doesn't read this, LOL). E.g., another friend of mine who simply has a big head (wears the headphones with size 5) has the earpads compress more evenly than it does for me as well. The mod would certainly still apply to him though, as he was easily able to come to the same conclusions about the difference it makes as I did. I'm not sure what factors of head shape/size directly play into this, lol, but I could explain how for you to visually tell.
Keep in mind that visually it doesn't mean everything and that even if this this described case doesn't apply to you, you may still get the same audible benefits regardless. But anyway, first, even though it's actually hard to tell on ourselves looking straight into a mirror, try to see it for yourself; tilt your head slightly from side to side with the headphones on, and if the top part of the pads seem more wrinkled (and therefore compressed) than the bottom, you pretty much have your answer. It's easier to tell by the creases than by actually looking at the thickness, just because of the unevenness of the sides of our heads, silly as that is to say =P. Afterward, when you've checked this out, try pushing the bottom and top of the headphones all the way down while they're on you. If the bottom is significantly more flexible, then I think that makes the case pretty obvious. If you're truly an " experienced audiophile", I'm sure you'll be able to establish the specifics on your own. Even if you don't hear exactly what the differences are but the case does apply to you, as with many things in sound, there is still largely a subconscious effect which impacts your overall experience by the end of whatever it is.
I guess like with everything, you can argue that it comes down to preference. Some people may not care for a more realistic sound but my argument is simply that this is what it is. From the very beginning, I felt that the sound alterations of this mod is what the headphones were kinda missing and I didn't think it was actually possible for there to even exist the headphone's uncompressed, accurate, and spacious sound on top of the general kind of sound I wanted to get from it. I guess in one word, what I wanted was also an "impactful" sound. The reason for my doubt just ended up being because of my wording, and the described effects of the mentioned changes was what in the end I actually had in mind. I thought I'd need a different pair of headphones for the two different experiences but for me, these headphones are now perfect to the point that nothing else is necessary any longer. Being mindful of their price, it's hard for even myself to believe and just because of that untelling fact, I guess I'll always have doubt until I really get to try the expensive stuff. It should be kept in mind that when I say this, I am biased only in the sense that instead of two different pairs of headphones, I'm thinking in terms of two pairs of different amps (which having discovered these headphones, I can definitely argue is the right way to go) - a solid state amp and a really good tube amp.
THE ACTUAL MOD INQUIRY: I may be crazy, but at the current moment I'm working on using metal coils (like the ones in the headband) to be attached to the plastic where it says L and R to push down on the bottom part of the cups where I would round the coil out. The more practical and more comfortable (on many levels) way of accomplishing this would be with pads that are designed gradually thinner as you approach the bottom. As for the exact thickness, that can be easily approximated. I would try to estimate an average, or actually, maybe to even suggest this idea some of you guys would try and measure it for yourselves (although that would mean factoring in potential inaccuracies). You would measure using a paper ruler you'd print out to get it in there and measure from/to the plastic plate which holds the pads. Maybe I'd have to demand posting a picture of your pads for this case...
The bigger problem is, who would/who can this idea be suggested to? I was trying to figure out who to contact to maybe ask and recommend making these alternate pads as an option (to buy additionally, or maybe even to package one kind and the other, or maybe even changing them to be the stock entirely if people feel that it more accurately represents the sound of the headphones). Really, the headphones should've actually just been designed with the connections at a lower part of the cups instead of the center so the pressure would be distributed properly on the average person's head. That's way more a task now and a harder sell than manufacturing an alternate version to the current earpads which just requires slanting them (and less foam they'd need to use anyway for which they can charge the same cost). Plus, I like the pad idea better regardless as it sounds less cumbersome (and wouldn't require the purchase of a new pair of headphones just for this XD). Any ideas on how to approach this altogether? That would be really great!
In any case, even though this may have been long-winded, I hope I didn't waste your time and this was helpful. Maybe this will also be productive for getting some initiation towards the mod. Seeing the growing number of people that have taken the plunge towards these headphones, I thought this might be appreciated and worth sharing. Thanks guys for reading, sincerely!
- Things in italics may be skipped/skimmed, without losing the main plot still.
- Things in bold are especially relevant to note, and you can probably leave relevant input really just having read that.
- Burn-in and break-in for these headphones really matter. Use whatever typical burn-in method that you think is best, and by break-in, I mean loosen the headband the amount it would inevitably get stretched and surpass, relative to the width of your head. This is important for some of the following points and for general testing purposes.
- The headphone band should be tilted upwards! (This is the only thing not THAT important to really note; it's just worth being mentioned.)
- The length of the metal coils should be adjusted such that the top part of your ear is close to touching the inner side of the pad and such that the headband is just barely touching the top part of your head, if not leaving a tiny bit of space even. From that point on, you obviously just remember the position. This measurement needs to be remade in time though. The headband further stretches out regardless and it changes how the headphones hold. Each side should also be equidistant for equal distribution of pressure on both sides (one off could be okay). As a relative note, I relate the size/length to the number of clicks where "3" then relates to the first line on the metal coil.
- The quality of the earpads make a huge difference, meaning that anything short of perfect (whether it be how it's sown, the distribution of foam, the amount of foam, etc...) in this case negatively impacts the sound in an endlessly possible combination of ways.
- The more rounded side of an earpad should be facing back solely for the purposes of fit and comfort.
- Modding the earpads to be thinner on the bottom would angle and/or distance the sound "more correctly", most likely for all cases of people. Even though easily claimed as being subjective, having a choice for this is a good idea regardless I would say, especially if consumers see the difference in design and question it for the purpose of getting what is better. For more people to be informed of seemingly subtle nuances and their not so subtle effects is always a good thing for us "hi-fiers" . I'm also seeking for help in how to approach this mod best, or even at all, and hoping for people to chime in and join me in the goal for making this a real option.
Edited by Typhoon859 - 3/14/13 at 7:45am