Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2
The Bowers & Wilkins P5 was, in my opinion, one of the most market-defining headphones not made by Beats. It was the first headphone from Bowers & Wilkins--a decades-old, storied loudspeaker manufacturer--released at a time when many experienced headphone manufacturers were thinking the only way to answer Beats was to mimic them. Bowers & Wilkins wasn't among them.
Obviously, nobody would expect B&W to enter the headphone market with a plasticky headphone, and they didn't. In fact, they did very much the opposite--with their P5, the owners' hands only touched metal or leather; and its styling was as gorgeous as it was unique. It even felt premium--even mechanically, everything about the P5 was buttery smooth and durably built. Five years after its debut, the Bowers & Wilkins P5 remains, in my opinion, one of the most satisfying headphones to touch and hold.
Sonically, the P5 was a very good portable headphone--competent, pleasant, but missing something, especially up top. Perhaps playing it a little too safe for their first headphone, Bowers & Wilkins opted for a very safe sound signature, and perhaps went a bit overboard with the smoothness. The original P5 was a headphone that, to my ears, lacks presence up top, sounding at times sparkle-free, even when the music called for more shimmer. For a time, I was willing to accept some amount of sonic tradeoff, for all the P5's other positive traits. In the nearly five years since, though, the competition has ramped up substantially. Bowers & Wilkins knew this, and so this year they updated the P5 substantially, introducing the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2.
With an all-new driver design--that I understand to inspired by the drivers in Bower & Wilkins' flagship P7--the P5 Series 2 is, to my ears, improving on the original P5 in just about every area it was needed, without losing what made it the P5. In other words, if you loved the P5, I think you're going to love the P5 Series 2.
To start, the bass is still rich and pronounced, but control and detail have improved in the lower registers. Midrange clarity has also taken a jump forward, reminding me of a lens coming into focus--it wasn't something I was as much wishing for as treble presence, but now that it's here, I'm very happy to hear it.
Now let's talk about treble, as this constituted the biggest unchecked checkbox for me with the original. In my 2011 review of the P5, I said:
Treble performance is where I think the P5 faces its biggest sonic criticism from me, with enough treble softness and roll-off to heighten the warmth of the P5's overall presentation, especially combined with the P5's smoothness everywhere else. Even through the clamor of public transportation, treble detail can often be heard and appreciated, and it is here, with the P5's upper registers, that the P5 falls the most sonically short. If I had my druthers, I wouldn't ask the Bowers & Wilkins engineers to abandon their aforesaid aversion to exaggerated treble--but I would enjoy enough of a boost in the upper registers (compared to where it is now) to get me to something I'd describe as a more neutral treble presentation. More detail up top would help to carve out a greater sense of detail in what is, again, a generally very safe (probably too safe), smooth, and pleasant overall sonic presentation.
I am excited to report that the P5 Series 2 now checks that box. Treble extension has been improved noticeably, and entirely to good effect. There's an assuredness now to the P5 Series 2's upper registers that was definitely not there in the original P5, and it was executed in this new version without creating any demons--no stridence, no sibilance, no offensive treble nasties of any sort.
In terms of soundstage, I'd call the new version essentially equal to the original. I don't find it in anyway constricting, but it's not going to convince you it's an open headphone either. Even though the P5 Series 2's soundstage isn't airy, the image it projects is coherent and precise for what I'd expect from a compact, closed, supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone.
To be clear, though, this is not a neutral, flat sounding headphone. It is still a richer-than-neutral sound signature, but this model is significantly more detailed than the P5 before it. In terms of overall performance, the P5 Series 2 is closer now to Bowers & Wilkins flagship P7 than it is to its P5 predecessor.
p>As for its styling, Bowers & Wilkins wisely chose to keep changes to a minimum. The only very noticeable change is that the silver brushed metal earcup faceplates are now black brushed metal earcup faceplates. I haven't decided yet which look I prefer, but, either way, this headphone is still one of the most beautiful headphones ever made, in my opinion; and, like its predecessor, it's still one of the best looking headphones on the head that I've ever seen.
At $299.99, the Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 is not just an easy recommendation for me to make, it is an emphatic one--especially if you're in the market for a super-compact on-the-go premium headphone.
Focal Spirit Classic and Spirit Professional
In writing up the Focal Spirit One, I mentioned that I'd like to see Focal move more upmarket with their headphones, given that they're best known for their ultra-expensive (and ultra-respected) loudspeakers. Well, since the last guide update, they've started making their moves, with two new headphones: the Focal Spirit Classic and the Focal Spirit Professional.
The $399 Focal Spirit Classic is the current flagship, intended as a headphone intended more for home or office use than it is for on-the-go use. As evidence of this, it comes with two cables, one of which is 13 feet long!
Also, with its larger headband, larger earcups and non-fold-flat design, it's clearly not intended to be as mobile as the Focal Spirit One. The Focal Spirit Classic also takes on a more mature appearance, with its "Hot Chocolate" brown color (that's what they call it), in varying shades from the earcups to the pads and headband. It's a gorgeous headphone.
Though its earcups are larger, the Spirit Classic's earpads aren't that much larger than the Spirit One's. Filled with memory foam, though, they're definitely more comfortable. The headband is also more comfortable than the Spirit One's, with broader, better padding.
As for how it compares to its more portable sibling, the Spirit Classic is a move to a more detailed, more complete soundscape, with richer tonality, and better imaging. There's a lushness to the Spirit Classic's tone that makes voices and most instruments come alive. It's warmer than neutral, never rough or strident, but still with glistening detail when appropriate.
We discussed the Focal Spirit Classic on Head-Fi TV earlier this year.
The Focal Spirit Professional is Focal's first studio monitor headphone, and is the most neutral headphone from Focal so far. Actually, to my ears, it's one of the more neutral closed over-ears on the market right now, period. For this reason, I predict it'll soon have a very strong following in the Head-Fi community.
Though I perceive its tonal balance to be rather flat, there's enough going on in its presentation to sound rich with detail, if not in tone--and, again, I think this is what a lot of Head-Fi'ers are looking for. I love this headphone for this reason, and have a hard time deciding which of the two newest Focals I prefer (and so am glad we have both here now).
Whereas the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor is my neutral reference in-ear--one of my sonic palate cleansers--the Focal Spirit Professional is earning a place as one of my over-ear neutral references.
The Focal Spirit Professional's form factor is sort of a mix between the Focal Spirit Classic (with a similar headband), and the Focal Spirit Classic (in terms of its earcup size and memory foam earpads). One very cool thing about the Focal Spirit Professional is the speckled black finish they gave it--it's supposed to an ultra-tough finish to stand up to the rigors of professional use. It's hard to capture its coolness in photographs, but trust me, in person it's very cool and unique.
For a company that also makes $180,000 loudspeakers, I'm hoping to see Focal continue to explore still higher-performance, no-holds-barred headphones going forward. For now, though, I'm pleased with the Focal Spirit Classic and Spirit Professional as upmarket moves by Focal in the headphone world.
If you’re looking for something with a neutral presentation for work, these are it; if you’re simply looking for something to take you bouncing into Graceland, these will most certainly do that too.
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HiFiMAN HE-6 and EF-6
The last several years has seen the fierce reemergence of planar magnetic driver technology. And one of the two companies currently pushing the envelope in planar magnetic driver design is HiFiMAN. In the past, the HiFiMAN HE-6 almost didn't make it into this guide, not because it isn't one of the best headphones in the world (to my ears, it certainly is), but because it can be so difficult to drive well. The problem is that not just any headphone amplifier will do--the HE-6 needs power, and lots of it. In 2013, I recommended its use with the Ray Samuels Audio DarkStar (around $3500), a pairing I still highly recommend if you have the budget for it. Even if you do have the scratch, though, make sure to also give serious consideration to the HiFiMAN EF-6 Class A headphone amp and preamp, which is less than half the price of the DarkStar.
The EF-6 was built and voiced with the HE-6 in mind, and, like the DarkStar, the EF-6 drives the HE-6 so adeptly that the HE-6 loses none of the detail (especially in the treble) that makes it so special, but also gains body noticeably everywhere else. When the HE-6 is driven well, it is an absolute force of nature, ultra-detailed yet smooth--utterly world class. I've also used the EF-6 to drive many other headphones, including ones by Sennheiser, Audeze, beyerdynamic, Denon and Fostex, and it has done wonderfully with all of those.
I haven't yet had the chance to compare the DarkStar and EF-6 side by side, but will do so when I can. Even so, I can say with complete confidence that the HE-6/EF-6 combo is a staggeringly good combo at the combined price of around $2900--one of the best headphone/amp combos I've ever heard.
The HE-6 have incredibly transparency, and a very wide-bandwidth delivery that is remarkably even and smooth.
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