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PHONON SMB-02 - HOLY GRAIL

post #1 of 47
Thread Starter 

First off, I just want to say that I have been searching on the forum for years, but never really posted anything until now. So, please don't take my limited appearances on the forum make me seem like a know-nothing. I have over 20 years experience in hi-end audio. I have had big rig set-ups from levinsons, mcintoshes, jadis, etc. and what have you come and go over the years. So, my ear is quite golden in this game of hi-end. but, in the world of headphones is a reduced scale of the same concept. 

 

That much said, I have recently moved into a smaller abode where my stereo rigs don't have much of a place anymore, so I have begun shopping into the world of headphones, this is where I stumbled upon the new PHONON SMB-02 while walking down SOHO in Manhattan and entering the famous Stereo Exchange Boutique.

 

but nevertheless, I have had my share of experiences with owning the sennheiser hd580's, AKG K501, Beyerdynamic DT880 and AKG k701, Shure 840, and the new AKG K550. I currently own: the hd650, AKG k701, and Denon CD 3000. Amps - using Headroom Cosmic.

 

Well, here it goes: inside the hi-end audio shop, the headphones section is shelved with Grados line for trying out, ok. sounds good, so, i tried them and did not like them a bit as I found them too dry and shrill sounding which is actually seen as a benefit to a lot of people because of the clarity, but the musicality is lost in the design. I'm sure the RS2 line and up sounds much better than cheaper stuff but that wasn't avaliable for testing. Now, The sales guy, Alan, says to me, listen. ...."are you ready for this pair that I'm going to bring to you from the basement? It's fairly new but it's going to blow your mind away." mind you, there are hd800, and hd700 lined behind the counter as well.   So, I wasn;t too sure what the hell he was going to bring me. But, all in all he brings up this box that  had the words PHONON SMB-02 SUBTONIC MONITOR BASIC HEADPHONES ON THE FRONT OF THIS MYSTERIOUS LOOKING BLACK BOX. the box was very basic and nothing that showed the marvels of marketing at play here.  on the back it was completely written in Japanese and says made in Japan in small captions on the back of the box. So, I said OK. 

 

The phones come out of the box and I swear to you I did not think much of the ugly looking phones upon first glance, it reminded me of those cheapo SONY STREET CLOSED BACK HEADPHONES THAT retail of about 40 dollars or what have you. really nothing special looking about them besides the silver finished 1/4 connecter. So, we plug it into his DECCO AMP and within 10 seconds I realized what was happening. THESE PHONES ARE VERY VERY VERY VERY SPECIAL. you know that analogy people throw out?

DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY IT'S COVER? WELL, this is one of those very moments and i really mean it. they could have dont more with the understated looks but the money charged for them is all in the drivers and the technology and start-up of the business. which usually translates into quality as the company is new. back to the sound: I threw all types of music at it from classical, jazz, to pop, gregorian chants and i have to say that ALAN was not scewing me... these are very very special. THE SOUND WAS MASSIVE!!

Bass was some of the deepest and controlled that I have ever heard and separation of instruments and musicality was so cohesive yet so distinguished that I could not believe what i was hearing. i blasted the volume and never was it shrill. the upper treble sparkles with such tazz and finesse that only the finest of the finest hifi systems can produce. mind you it's not peaky at all just very airy and refined without affecting the mids. the mids are full and robust and chorus and background singers are absolutely clear when harmonizing - voice distinction absolutely marvelous. Cymbals decay with such a natural and seductive trail that makes you wonder why are these phones only 350.00.  Overall, the sound is balanced, FULL, WARM, and full of details and very refined. It is a closed headphone so, soundstage is quite limited but nevertheless it does an amazing job at recreating spatial dimension around instruments. I had my AKG K550's with me  to audition and i immediately put them away in embarassment because the sound from those were so thin and frail and shrill to listen - that's AKG sound for everyone. not enjoyable. so, I was sold,  i picked up the PHONON SMB-02 and have not regretted ever since. I prefer these to the HD650's because of the neutrality of the sound. So, clear. these are TRUE STUDIO HEADPHONES. those other big name companies need to learn a thing or two from this small start-up in JAPAN. PHONON was created by 3 audiophiles/sound engineers, etc. to bring about new flavor to the hi-end game. everyone should check them out. I am loving these phones so much. 

 

 

how do these fair against the other headphones i have?

 

here's what the consensus after 100+ hours of listening:

 

the PHONONs are so easy to listen to yet have so much power and depth to the sound when the source material and equipment can give it. they are low impedence so driving straight from an mp3 player can do but get an amp and it will do it better justice.

 

i love these phones so much that my denon and sennheisers don't get much play anymore since i've gotten the PHONONs.

The Phonons are a warm can without sacrificing details and upper range. the upper range again is so beautiful. what is especially beautiful and magical about these phones is the way they render acoustic instruments such as strings and piano so much texture and overlays and timbre that gives instruments life in 2 sealed cups around your ears. the phones do tend to get a little hot around the ears after about 1 hour but just taking them off for a little and re-adjusting helps much. but ultimately, strectching the band helps a great deal. btw they are not circumaural so they are smaller and thus sit snug right on top of your ear. 

 

THE AKG K550'S ARE GOING BACK TO THE STORE. i cannot believe they call those can's reference. because they were so thin-sounding side by side with the phonons and not musical at all. the low end was better than the akg k702 but doesnt say much because the k702 is not a bassy phone to begin with.  k550s are good and have a wider soundstage but there is not much musicality to the cans. builit like a tank but the sound does not do the military looking design justice. the k550s could have been better. but fails. 

 

all in all,  the PHONON SMB-O2 are a pair of phones i can honestly say are worth 3 times its price tag. It is 350.00 but it absolutely without question performs like a 1000.00 pair of headphones at least, hint hint.. hd800.. don't own but brother does and I got to A/B them. while the hd800 is an open air design it sounds more spacious but musicality is on par with the PHONONS are far as pacing, details, warmth, texture. how do I end this, ok.. here it does.. it's one of those phones where you put it on and listen to your most familiar and most favorite recordings and find yourself hearing new things and tapping your feet and SMILING!!! mind you, THESE ARE NOT AUDIO TECHNICA 30S AT ALL!! THEY MIGHT LOOK LIKE THEY HAVE THE SAME HEADBAND BUT THAT IS ABOUT IT. THE SOUND IS COMPLETELY I MEAN COMPLETELY DIFFERENT AND BEYOND THE AUDIO TECHNICAs. WHY DID PHONON CHOOSE THIS DESIGN I DO NOT KNOW PRIOBALLY FOR UNOBTRUSIVENESS, MORE PROFESSIONAL, CLEAN AND UNDERSTATED SO YOU CAN CONCENTRATE ON THE SOUND. 

 

I WISH THERE WERE MORE DEALERS AND REVIEWERS FOR THE CANS BUT O WELL LET ME BE THE FIRST!!

 

HOPE THESE PHONES CATCH ON QUICK BECAUSE I KNOW THEY WILL. o btw.. i mean it when i said i prefer these PHONONS TO MY HD650 BECAUSE I THINK THAT IT DOES EVERYTHING BETTER EXCEPT SOUNDSTAGING. 

 

go out and try them... STEREO EXCHANGE IN MANHATTAN NEW YORK CARRIES THEM BUT THEY ARE PROBABLY SOLD OUR FOR NOW.. gotta call them.   wish everyone would try them and share opinions.

post #2 of 47
Thread Starter 

have confirmed with Phonon regarding the smiliarities with the Audio Technica ATH-m30. yes, the design of the housing is based on it, but that is where it ends. you have a completely different product. the ath m30 were so cheap that i bought a pair to a/b and it's not even close. LANDSLIDE IS AN UNDERSTATEMENT. it's completely different product in terms of sound. the ath-m30 is hence such, a budget headphone. the phonon smb-02 are a godsend in disguise among all these overpriced so-called hi-end headphones out there. PEOPLE YOU HAVE TO REALLY GO BEYOND IT'S MEDIOCRE LOOK AND HAVE A LISTEN. YOU WILL BE ABSOLUTELY FLOORED. I PROMISE YOU. YOU ARE NOT BUYING THE MATERIALS. YOU ARE BUYING THE PHILOSOPHY, THE HARD-WORK, AND EFFORTS OF A VERY PASSIONATE COMPANY THAT CARES ABOUT MUSICALITY AND PRESERVING THE PURENESS OF THE ORIGINAL SOURCE. 

 

YOU REALLY HAVE TO OWE IT TO YOURSELF NOT TO FOLLOW THE MASSES AND JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER ON THIS ONE. PRESENTATION IS NOT THE BEST, BUT IT IS FAITHFULLY PRODUCED AND QC'D IN JAPAN!!!

post #3 of 47

So where can we buy these in the states?

post #4 of 47

It would help if there was even one online site to buy them. I just spent 5 minutes googling and came up with maybe they are $400? and no reviews except for blurbs from people who were probably given the headphones.

 

The company really needs to contact this site for an official review if they are serious. We need a second source. Otherwise, sorry this can is a unicorn. Oh, and please don't use so much CAPS. 

post #5 of 47

off the official site their 3rd dealer is Stereo Exchange in NY. ( some high end stuff for sure )

http://stereoexchange.com/whats-new/

 

I would assume you'd have to contact them directly to see if they will ship out to you. So tempted. Must try to forget. Must...forget...

post #6 of 47
Thread Starter 

sorry for the caps everyone. but these are likened to the the refinements of guitar or car shop as put by the head of the company whom i had contacted. they are customized to the sound of hi-end audio of the good ol days of the 80s and 90s as he had put it. so, its a very handmade product in a mass  produced package according to him. hence the price point. STEREO EXCHANGE IS THE PLACE TO GET THEM. THEY DEAL in hi-end audio - bowers and wilkins, mirage, mcintosh and the likes. they'r e the only retailer in the states here. they're based in heart of soho manhattan , new york. give them a call and ask for ALAN - he's the sales rep that sold me on them.. they also had the grados line-up for demo and you can immediately tell the difference. Phonons smb-02s are phones that you cannot put down because they are so lush. especially right next to grados. really must have a listen as words do not do the headphones justice at all.

post #7 of 47
Interested in getting a pair...
post #8 of 47
Thread Starter 

Okay so.. 30 hours into listening to the ATH-M30s side by side with the Phonon SMB-02s for laughs and I have to confess while the Audio Technicas do sound like a decent pair of headphones albeit a little muddy on the low-end and a little grainy at the top, it is not even a close match-up to the Phonon SMB-02s as for as instrumental separation, spacial perception and refinement in the spectrum and of course, the low-end does not have the impact and textures of the Phonon SMB-02s which ultimately drive the music - I do not mean it in the sense of Monster Beats btw for lack of better word. I know some people here do like those phones and all the more power to you guys but to me personally since sound is a subjective area anyway, I find those cotton-candy headphones atrocious sounding - with overtuned bass and just a serious kick in the ass for the money people spend on them when they actually find out that for the money, much much better could of been had. 

 

The Phonon SMB-01s were a direct OEM of the ATH-M30s with the same housing and drivers, but as for the SMB-02s, it's a different variant with round driver cups with a couple of small vented holes I assume are for ventilation for spacial performance, while still retaining impact and performance of the low-end of a closed can. These cans fit pretty comfortably and does in fact block outside noise pretty well. the cord is about 10 feet long, and fairly long for that part and is finished with a silver 3.5mm connector and 1/4 inch screw on adaptor.The one that I got is heat-shrunk to the cable itself. I was told my Alan at Stereo Exchange that it was the last pair in the batch that he had gotten because they were all sold to studios around Manhattan and they buy them out by the dozens! So, nevertheless, the one that I got was the last pair in the house for the week and it was actually the ones that were meant for Stereo Exchange's boss.

 

 

Some pics of the champ:

 

 

if you can read Japanese that would be great: someone please provide a detailed translation of those words. but, not necessary because the music speaks for itself. btw, MADE IN JAPAN - o sorry caps! 

 

 

 

 

you see the couple of vent holes at the top the driver cups, they really are hollow vent holes holes, not just there for asethetics.

 

 

 

 

 

here's the package that i got from stereo exchange, btw, that nice little nylon zippered bag in the picture was actually a dealer package bag that was sent to stereo exchange, so normally you don't get the bag. but the headphones do come with that velvet, felt-like drawstring pouch where the cable is resting. also, in front of the phonon box is my grado 3.5" adaptor, of course that is a separate purchase.

 

 

shrink-wrapped adaptor. it unscrews as mentioned to reveal a 3.5mm mini plug

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

okay so, there it is.   now as I am listening right now:

 

I'm listening to:

 

 

 

JOURNEY- WHO'S CRYING NOW - 

 

o man Steve Perry's voice with the raspiness is so -- well there without the ear-piercing shrills of grado. the drums the guitar riffs are so dynamic and smooth that I cannot express what a gratifying experience it is to listen to this headphone through these cans. 

They are indeed as expressed by Isao Kumano - head of Phonon - tweaked to the sound a hi-end gear of the 80s and 90s . and I've had many of them - levinsons, Mcintoshes, B&W NAUTILUS 800, KRELL MONOS, and some jadis tube gear, also some congrad Johnson pre-amps. THese Phonons create THAT type of sound and hi-end refinement and balance without sacrificing the low-end.

 

Carmina Burana - Carl Orff - 

 

Dynamics Dynamics Dynamics, the greogrian chant is at its best here. from the low chants to the dynamic chorus with the horns and drums that resonate through the hall that it was recorded. the strings have texture and is not just a line of notes up and down, every pull and stroke evokes emotions and flavor of that of a real wooden string instrument. as dynamic as it is, it has the cohesion and togetherness of an ensemble only good hi-end systems can put out at the $10,000 mark and beyond. 

 


Variations on the Canon - George Winston

 

I love the piano and I also play - rather my repertoire is a more inclined towards contemporary pop, jazz, new age, and some classical - buts gotta be melodic otherwise i fall asleep. Well, chords have the weight and harmony as the melodic lines have the beautiful flow and never are things lost in a soup of mess. clarity with lush smoothness. those of you out there that love the hd650s and the likes must give this phone a try and you'll hear what I am talking about. this is a flavorful sound and GRADO LOVERS might even like this can for its expressive dynamics without the shrillness. instruments have weight and depth to them. The arpeggios sound magnificent in this piece by George Winston and they are faithfully reproduced.

 

 

FANTASIE IMPROMPTU - CHOPIN - David Helfgott

 

Another great  piano piece by Chopin and one of the most easily recognizable ones as well as technically challenging because of the different timing for right and left hands, but nevertheless this one was recorded live in Germany in front of a full house and this man, David Helfgott plays the hell out of it as the tempo is true (fast) and the notes are likened to an avalanche of notes coming down on you that you do not even have time to process but along the way the emotions that it draws up are tense , very very tense , suspenseful and then finally relief near the two minute mark. and that is the way the piece should be played. greatness at its best. when he comes down the registers towards that relief, the dynamics are true to a real piano. it's got so much weight and fullness that you feel his fingers forcefully depress down onto the wooden keys with full body weight.  truly remarkable.

 

These are just a few pieces that i thought were worth a mention, but nevertheless I've listened to many songs over the past few weeks and they are MY goto phones since acquiring them. I do not work for stereo exchange, nor am i affiliated with Phonon in any way. I even found them gimmicky at times as I am a very skeptical person naturally as I am an educated consumer who is budget conscious , yes, even with the krells and levinsons as they are a bang for the buck in my own personal terms. look in the hi-end world, budget means a whole 'nother thing. So, the Phonons are definately worth a price tag if you were to ask me ,, 1000 if you will. there will be clearer, more neutral phones that just spew you with details and give you a shrill top end and you'll end up having t equalize it with amps and interconnects and powercords and DACs but let me tell you. it's going to cost you a lost more than what these cans put forth from the getgo. 

 

btw, they need burn-in - and I'm telling you , you need atleast 50 hours on them to let them shine and open up that top end to its potential. but not totally necessary as you'll be amazed once you put them on.

 

 

I have also tried these phones with my iphone straight from the source as its impedence is low enough to drive without amp but certainly improve vastly with an amp. mp3s and crap files highly compressed for that matter sound without a question much better due to the capabilities of the phone, fullness and weight and instrument separation are all there, but the digital noise will be more apararent as these phones are revealing without sacficifing the original sound. 

 

These cans remind me of my good ol days with my vinyl system, so great. These are what I truly would call "live".


Edited by phatalleycat - 10/13/12 at 6:09am
post #9 of 47

Much improved info there thanks!

 

What did you pay for them?

post #10 of 47

@OP

 

Not much to read on the back of the box... specs at the right (you wouldn't need to know Japanese to read it), and a massive cut-out warranty card on the bottom-left.

post #11 of 47
Thread Starter 

thanks for the appraisal guys. anyhow, I paid 350.00  plus tax for them and am going back for another pair for safe-keeping. ....shhhh... the wife need not know.

 

I am planning on picking up a woo audio amp to replace my cosmic sometime next month. be quite interesting how that would pair with the Phonons as it is leaning towards a warm-sounding headphone. anyone?

post #12 of 47

Nice review!! Color me curious. Will you loan me your backup pair? I am very trustworthy. biggrin.gif I'll pay shipping. wink.gif

 

I'd be hard pressed to think that these could knock you off the hd650...

post #13 of 47

Subscribed.  I look forward to seeing some more impressions!  Thanks for sharing, Phatalleycat.

post #14 of 47

Build quality seems pretty crappy for costing $350 confused_face_2.gif

post #15 of 47
Thread Starter 

that's the initial impression that I had to get over, but ultimately the sonics deliver and the simplicity of the headphone structure and design is tried and trued in the industry. While there is no industry standard to measure here, it does in fact conform to the needs of professional applications and the likes with its sound isolation, ease of headband adjustment, comfortable pads and long and resilient cord with proper termination that seems to withstand rigors of every day use. No its not a Philips Fidelio L1 marvel of a luxury item, but it is luxury in the sense that it is a sound I have been yearning for years on end at this price point which i consider a bargain in the headphone industry. And not to smug or anything, but the reality is that I have spent lexuses and mercedes worth of hi-end audio equipment over the years to draw my points upon this seemingly insignificant product upon first glance. So, at 350.00 I am not expected spacecraft moonstone gems and diamonds here, nor am I into fancy packaging. I am into music and music it delivers. So, if you are looking for aesthetics, look elsewhere, because you will always be yearning for something concrete and physical to justify your purchase beyond immaculate sonics alone. I am not trying to convince you otherwise to overlook the aesthetics, but share with you sir, my honest opinion regarding my personal take on what justifies cost here and for me its not about re-sellability, but rather the SOUND that I want. However, I do wish that everyone give it a try if they can and I am trying to pave the way for that road so everyone can give it  a try. I have never really been a headphone guy because I am unimaginative and need the spacial sound field before my very eyes for me to perceive dimensionality and so-called realism. But, headphones have become a necessity in the sense that the only time I get to enjoy my music now is in the wee hours of night as family time and work schedule does not allow me to enjoy my main rig.   So, I have devoted much more time now than any other period that I recall into searching for my music through headphones. 

 

If you however, are just entering into the hi-fi realm and searching for better sound, remember, the higher up you go , the more the principle of diminishing returns become more apparent. That is simply business. It is up to you in the end to determine and define the level of value in the given product. And for me, confession, took some time, but my money was well spent, as Isao Kumano created the Phonons for me to listen and for me to have found them, it brings a new level of enjoyment to a sometimes drab and gray are of music reproduction where people are nitpicking treble, bass, spacial dimensionality, etc. 

 

Not everyone is at liberty to try a product at 350.00 dollars and to be disappointed in the end because of some hyped-up review such as mine, but again it is my personal opinion and I certaintly don't speak for anyone else but myself and do not wish to be at fault for people who do try the phonons and become disappointed. However, I am entitled to my own opinion and am trying to share my opinion on a very interesting new finding if not a great finding. Hi-end audio is about enjoying the music, finding new ways to refine that music through the art, science, experience of those who have a deep interest into it and sharing those aspects with others. That is the reason we are all here, to share, to get re-assurance, to differentiate, to compare, to try and define a standard as to what is truly a good sound. So, by all means. Thanks everyone for responding and drawing interest in a rather mysterious product and hearing me out. Keep everyone posted. and share any experiences you have with the Phonons.

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