Alpha Dog Impressions/Thoughts/Review/Word-Stuff Extravaganza
Now that I’ve had more time to listen to the Alpha Dog, compare it against my Mad Dog 3.2 and HE-500 (with Jergpads), and think about what to say, I wanted to give a more complete and finalized set of impressions.
During my listening sessions, I used my PC with an Onkyo SE-200PCI sound card and mostly FLAC music through JRiver MC, which fed my vintage Sansui 5000A receiver. Both the Onkyo and Sansui are reported to trend towards a warmer, supposedly more “analog-like” sound (if that means anything to anyone) as opposed to something like, say, the ODAC/O2, though often such claims can be exaggerated. At the very least, I find the gear easier to listen to and smoother than the ODAC/O2 without any other sacrifices. The Sansui does not have a tone bypass, so I did my best to set it to be flat based on what measurements I could take of the HPO. Unfortunately, the tone controls on my Sansui are a bit off and give a treble-tilted sound when both set to 12 o’clock (middle), hence my need to dial it in manually. Yes, the receiver needs some restoration, but it sounds great otherwise and works very well with orthos. I did roll off the treble slightly so that it was approximately -1dB at 20KHz, but I’ve also seen this as a common aspect in other measured amps.
Having brought up that I have the treble rolled off slightly on the Sansui, I should mention that I’m fairly sensitive to peaky/uneven, elevated, and/or ringing treble. I seem to have become more intolerant of it over the past few years, as backwards as that seems when aging is considered (though I’m still fairly young in the grand scheme of things). Listening fatigue can set in rather quickly for me these days, though I’ve always tended to dislike treble-happy headphones. The D2000 had some peaks, brightness, and ringing (partially masked by the bass), and that was about as far as I could go for regular, enjoyable listening. Generally, my preference leans towards a neutral, smooth sound that is slightly dark and laid-back. I found the Mad Dog 3.2 and previously-owned Paradox to fit my tastes rather well overall, for example.
Music examples included selections from bands and albums such as Opeth (mostly their latest 3 albums), Radiohead (albums included “Kid A,” “Amnesiac,” and “In Rainbows”), Porcupine Tree’s heavier albums and Steven Wilson’s latest solo album, Daft Punk’s latest album, and a couple selections from the Battlestar Galactica OST (newer series). While, yes, I tend to listen to heavier, more harsh music, I find bands like Opeth and Porcupine Tree cover a wide variety of genres, as does Radiohead (though, yes, they’re not a heavy band).
Hopefully my background will help others better understand my tastes and my perspective with these impressions so that they can better decide whether or not the Alpha Dog is the right headphone for them. Also, keep in mind that if I seem to be stating something as a hard fact, I still mean it from my subjective perspective.
Look, Feel, Quality, and Presentation
The first thing that stands out about the Alpha Dog is the overall presentation of the product. It comes in a nice, custom, but minimalistic box, includes a stand and a nice custom cable (though slightly microphonic), includes a carrying bag, and, well, the Alpha Dog itself looks fantastic itself. It looks nicer in person than most pictures convey. The paint finish is darker than I thought it would be, which is a plus. It looks very professional overall. Very smooth, seemingly no imperfections or blemishes, etc. I’m also a fan of the matte black headband sliders! They look and feel great, as though the finish on them will be resilient and last, though I obviously did not test to see if I could do otherwise.
For what it’s worth, my roommate and close friend said he did not like the look of the Alpha Dog when I showed him a picture of it. He was pretty quick to point out that his opinion changed when he saw it in person.
The cups seem to be of high quality and very solid, and I’m impressed with the cabling plugs and their overall implementation. I carefully took the pads off to examine the new baffle and overall construction. You can see more of the rougher printed material on the baffle (see Dan’s pictures of unfinished cups on his site to get somewhat of an idea). The pad mounting mechanism seems to be more or less a second, elevated lip on the baffle that the ear pad “flaps” are inserted into compared to going around the outside of the baffle and cup like on the Mad Dog. I’ve seen similar pad mounting designs on other headphones. I find it slightly harder to remove and apply the pads on the Alpha Dog, but it’s still very easy and intuitive.
I did notice that one side of the headphone had more of a gap between the baffle and the cup than the other side, though these are very small gaps I’m talking about. There appeared to be a sort of dark foam material sandwiched between the baffle and cup, though, so everything could still be sealed properly. This might even be a normal difference to see between the cups. At the very least, it didn’t produce any differences in sound that I could detect. This was the only physical “imperfection” from what I could tell in the overall presentation, if you can call it that. I’m not worried about it.
I know some have said the stand is too short, but I believe Dan wanted to stick with a specific USPS box size, hence the height limitation on the stand. I don’t mind, though, and I think it’s better to include it than not. I normally remove cables (if removable) and shorten the headband height when storing my headphones anyway, so the stand is quite convenient for me and works well in that regard.
Overall, I’d say the quality and presentation of the Alpha Dog meets the premium price.
Strangely enough and despite the extra weight, I’ve found the Alpha Dog to be a bit more comfortable than the Mad Dog. I’m not sure if this is due to how the new cups work with the headband and how they sit on the head differently, if it’s due to the different headband bending compared to my Mad Dog (though I did my best to match how the headband was bent on the AD and my MD), if it’s due the slightly different pad fit with the new baffle, or if I’m just fooling myself. As I said, yes, they’re a bit heavier than the Mad Dog, but the weight seemed to be better distributed across my head. At the very least, they’re fairly comparable in comfort. The HE-500 is noticeably heavier, and it hurts my head much faster when you combine that with its barebones headband.
That said, I would not consider any of these headphones as being top-notch when it comes to weight and comfort. If you’re coming from lightweight, comfortable headphones, you might not find the Alpha Dog extremely comfortable. I generally have to use additional cushioning on any T50RP variant (assuming it uses the stock headband in some form) and the HE-500 due to the weight, fit, and the discomfort they otherwise cause me rather quickly. If my somewhat treble-sensitive ears are any indication, it would not be far-fetched to assume my head is more sensitive than others, haha.
While I still stand by my initial impressions from a couple days ago, I did want to expand on what I said earlier. I might not repeat everything from my initial impressions, so I recommend you read those if you have not. They still apply. The Alpha Dog does sound good overall and offers some noticeable improvements from the Mad Dog. First, the Alpha Dog’s response up until around 1KHz seems to be smoother and better controlled than the Mad Dog. This is particularly noticeable in the bass region. For example, I found the bass drum on Opeth’s “Ghost Reveries” album to have more kick and a more solid feel to it than the Mad Dog, which I can only best describe as sounding slightly more diffused and less clear. The bass (instrument) also sounded more defined on the Alpha Dog than the Mad Dog. It’s not that the Alpha Dog sounded like it had more or less bass necessarily, but more that it sounded better defined and more controlled as a whole. I have heard some say the T50RP tends to have a “rubbery” sound with the bass (much to do with the enclosure), and that made more sense to me after I heard the Alpha Dog. Those improvements aside, I found the overall tuning fairly similar between the Alpha Dog and Mad Dog (main differences there likely coming from the better enclosure) up until the treble region.
While the Alpha Dog is overall more neutral and generally an improvement over the Mad Dog, I was not very fond of their sound and tuning in the treble region. Going back to Opeth, this became immediately apparent as soon as “Ghost of Perdition” opened up. The guitars were overly “crunchy” and slightly thin sounding and some of the cymbals sounded like they had been wrapped in aluminum foil and placed too close to my ears. With some other music I tried, the snare might have a bit too much attack or the drums as a whole might sound too front and center. My ears did not find it too pleasing, and these effects were still noticeable even in softer genres, but at least treble ringing and resonance wasn’t an issue on the Alpha Dog.
I’ve always found something to be a bit uncomfortable and weird about the T50RP treble (stock, personal mods, Paradox, and Mad Dog iterations), and I usually do a bit of EQ to smooth things out. The Alpha Dog shares these characteristics and then some.
Thanks to a bit of help from a couple rough and initial measurements for the Alpha Dog, one provided here by Dan and the other provided by someone else on another part of the internet that I won’t go into details about, I was able to quickly identify the peaks were around 5-6KHz and 10KHz. That’s probably not exact, but it’s close enough. The peak around 10KHz is fairly common with the T50RP, but it did feel more exaggerated to me on the Alpha Dog. However, my main problem seemed to be with the 5-6KHz peak. That was the biggest contributor to the harsh sound.
While both the Mad Dog and HE-500 have their own, sometimes similar treble problems, I found it much more difficult to listen to the Alpha Dog without EQ than the other two headphones. That said, once I applied a bit of EQ to the Alpha Dog’s problematic spots, it provided for an excellent listening experience. Think the Mad Dog 3.2 with the above mentioned improvements and an overall less dark/more neutral sound, less laid-back, more open sounding, etc. The Alpha Dog without EQ can sound a bit north neutral and lacks smoothness to my ears due what I’ve mentioned in the treble.
Really, though, I found myself not wanting to take the Alpha Dogs off after a bit of EQ. I just wanted to keep playing song after song, which is usually a good sign. I was very pleased and would easily be satisfied with that as my only headphone (except not really, because then I can’t keep buying headphones I don’t need). Without EQ, I found myself wanting to take them off or keep the volume much lower than I wanted to avoid listening fatigue.
In regards to soundstage, imaging, and how open the Alpha Dog sounds, it’s still a closed headphone. It sounds more open and wider than the Mad Dog, sure, and it sounds fairly open for a closed headphone (D2000-7000 and TH600/900 are more of a semi-open design). The Alpha Dogs have much less of an ability to fool me into thinking I’m listening to speakers placed in front of me than some of the more open sounding headphones from my memory (HD598, open-back D2000 mod). When I tried the HE-500 with alpha pads (modded to Jergpad style, actually) shortly after listening to the Alpha Dog, it became very apparent that the Alpha Dog does not sound open compared to a good open headphone. (Though, I thought I should point out that the HE-500 with Jergpads didn't give me the impression of a wide, open sound like the jergpad-ish modded alpha pads.)
Take that as you will, because as long as a headphone has pretty good imaging and doesn’t sound like a claustrophobic wall of sound, I usually don’t think much beyond that and focus on other aspects of the sound. And for a closed headphone, it does very well. I’ve always liked modded T50RPs because of this.
Interestingly enough, I thought the Alpha Dogs sounded wider and more open once I applied EQ to the 5-6KHz and 10KHz spots. Those peaks could make the sound too aggressive and too up-front otherwise.
Lastly, isolation is quite good, much like the Mad Dog but slightly better. With a good seal, you’ll get very little or almost no leakage, and you won’t be hearing much of the outside world. I wasn’t really expecting anything else, though.
I think the Alpha Dog gives a fairly good impression overall. The quality and finish itself is wonderful, and the included goodies are a very nice touch. It feels and looks like a premium product. And while the Alpha Dog brings some noticeable improvements over the Mad Dog and does trend towards a brighter and perhaps more neutral sound as advertised, I found it strongly held back by the somewhat uneven and harsh treble. EQ does wonders to the Alpha Dog, though this is not always an optimal or acceptable solution for everyone. I do not mind EQing headphones, but I prefer headphones that I can easily tolerate without EQ for the occasional times I use the headphones outside of my normal setup (ex: lack of EQ for certain software [internet, games, etc.] or portable setups without decent software EQ).
In the end, the Alpha Dog for me falls into the “almost-but-not-quite” excellent category. Lots of promise, lots of great aspects, but it misses the mark for me despite there being much more positive about it than negative. As it is, I’ll be sticking with the Mad Dog and HE-500, though I would easily reconsider if anything about the Alpha Dog were to be changed or revised.
Do keep in mind my background and personal tastes when considering my impressions. I know many are totally satisfied with the Alpha Dogs, which goes to show my impressions are by no means absolute and should rather be used as a subjective reference point to help others better decide whether or not the Alpha Dogs might be right for them.
Thanks again to Dan for giving me the opportunity to test the Alpha Dog out on the tour! I really appreciate it, and it’s been fun! If I forgot to cover something or if anyone has any questions, please let me know, but do double check to make sure I haven’t already covered it in this post or a prior one. I'm also wondering if this would be better as a separate thread...
Edit: One thing I'd like to clarify is that the issues I mentioned are by no means extreme relative to many other headphones. It is just a bit outside of my comfort zone, and mostly due to the emphasis around 5KHz on this particular pair. While the HE-500 (with jergpads) has a mostly uniform treble peak that starts to slope up around 6KHz and peaks around 9-10KHz (according to measurements available online), the Alpha Dogs have, to my ears, two separate peaks at 5KHz and 10KHz on this pair. Both are about on par in magnitude, but the AD's peaks are sharper/narrower, and the dual peak response to me creates some particularly weird and harsh effects in certain music (see brief mentioned effects above). That is why I find it less comfortable to listen to without EQ than the HE-500. The Mad Dog had some similar weirdness in the treble, but it was less pronounced (even better with the 3.2 revision) and sounded smoother and more laid back. But, as I said, it's not extreme. I bet for most people and most other genres, there will be little to no problems to be heard with the Alpha Dog's treble. A lot of the softer material I tested gave me much fewer or sometimes no problems.
I do believe the harsh treble is most noticeable when you can switch back and forth with and without EQ (preferably a nice parametric EQ). Here is what I most recently used on this particular AD with the EasyQ plugin for JRiver MC:
5KHz, -3.5dB, 0.66 oct bandwidth
10KHz, -2.9dB, 0.25 oct bandwidth
Now, it's not perfect by any means, but it solves most of the issues for me and was set up quickly. I was still regularly tweaking it depending on what I was listening to. You're welcome to try it and see what you think, but I mostly wanted to post it for completeness.
I also use the semi-DIY Dayton BR-1 speakers during my listening tests and comparisons (sub doesn't count, it's just OK). You can find a FR measurement of them here (credit to MurphyBlaster). Not perfect, yes, but still fairly good and balanced overall (the main weakness lies in the crossover). The silk tweeters present a nice, smooth response, and the above EQ provides a much closer sound to my speakers on the Alpha Dog than without. I also EQ the speakers based on that graph, as they're a tad dark otherwise.
Edited by hans030390 - 11/11/13 at 7:53am