The Sennheiser HD 800 is one of the most significant headphones of the last decade. It elevated the state of the art in electrodynamic headphones, by a wide margin, when it was first announced at the beginning of 2009; and it encouraged others in the industry to also push the envelope.
Handcrafted in Germany, the HD 800 was the first headphone to use low-mass, low-distortion ring-radiator drivers. These ultra-fast drivers, coupled with the HD 800's extremely non-reverberant chassis, result in a ruthlessly revealing headphone.
To wring the best sound out of it, the HD 800 absolutely needs to be matched well with a good headphone amplifier (with this headphone, I've personally had my best results with tube amps). Match it up poorly, and it can be overly bright. Drive it well, and it'll reward you with what will probably be the best sound quality you've ever heard from headphones. Yes, the HD 800 is picky, but, in my opinion, it's worth the effort once you get it right.
The HD 800 is also thought by many (myself included) to be among the most comfortable full-sized headphones ever made. The HD 800's headband radius and flexibility (its headband being as close to perfect as I've worn), softly-sprung pivots, large-footprint earpads, and luxurious pad materials make the HD 800 feel feather-light on the head.
In addition to its technical merits, the Sennheiser HD 800 also had epochal industry impact in another way: It began a strong upward shift in flagship dynamic headphone pricing, arriving with a firmly-enforced minimum price that was around three times the price of Sennheiser's previous dynamic flagship (the HD 650).
Because this price increase was met with what most considered a commensurate performance elevation, demand for the HD 800 was extremely strong at its launch, and remains so. In my opinion, this encouraged other companies to similarly go all-out, developing high-performance headphones with greater attention to pushing the performance envelope, in the wake of a market that revealed itself more than willing to pay a high premium for ultra-high-performance headphones.
For all of the above things, the HD 800 is a fantastic, important headphone, and one of my all-time favorites. However, now there's also this (see below):
As such I highly recommend the HD800's, I've derived tons of listening pleasure from mine. It is a headphone that I like to think can do things which no other headphone can.
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Sennheiser HD 800 S
At the Fall 2015 Fujiya Avic Tokyo Headphone Festival, Sennheiser quietly unveiled a new model based on the Sennheiser HD800 called the Sennheiser HD800S. It's more of a line extension, as the original Sennheiser HD800 will remain a current model.
The Sennheiser HD 800S comes packaged a bit differently from the original HD 800. Most noticeably, the HD 800S is a gorgeous matte black, versus the HD800's silver. It's important to note that the HD 800S's matte black finish isn't just a layer of paint--both the outer coating and the base material are black. Also, it comes packaged with two cables--the standard cable, terminated with a 1/4" stereo plug, and a balanced cable, terminated with a full-size four-pin XLR balanced plug.
Most important, of course, are the sonic changes that come with the Sennheiser HD 800S--changes I find entirely positive, and that largely address the caveats you'll see in my Sennheiser HD 800 Guide entry above this one. First, let's quote Sennheiser's explanation of the technology that sets the HD 800S apart from the first-generation HD 800:
"Absorber technology of the HD 800 S: The enhanced sound reproduction of the HD 800 S is achieved through the addition of the innovative absorber technology that was pioneered in the Sennheiser IE 800 – a breakthrough that preserved the audibility of very high frequency sounds by eliminating a phenomenon known as the “masking effect”, where the human hear struggles to hear frequencies of sound when lower frequencies of a higher volume occur at the same time. By absorbing the energy of the resonance, Sennheiser’s patented absorber technology prevents any unwanted peaks and allows all frequency components – even the finest nuances – in the music material to become audible. This innovation was a key element in making the IE 800 the world’s best sounding in ear headphone, and in the HD 800 S it helps to bring even greater purity and precision."
Accompanying that explanation is an explanation Sennheiser's Axel Grell gave me in Japan: "The HD800S is an improved version of the HD800. It has an acoustical absorber like the IE 800, and as a result the frequency response that is more extended, but smoother--fewer peaks. Also, the low-bass is also more extended--not necessarily more bass, but deeper extension."
For me, the HD 800S is a substantial subjective improvement over its predecessor. Whereas the Sennheiser HD 800 has been inordinately picky about pairings (as described in the HD 800 Guide entry above), the HD 800S has been a far more versatile match with a much wider variety of amps. Keep in mind this is still a high-impedance headphone of moderate sensitivity, so a good headphone amp is still of critical importance. However, the breadth of amp types that synergies with the HD800S is a far more open field than with the HD 800.
The improvements are mostly in the treble region, where it has been made more linear, smoother than its predecessor. Also, the HD 800S's bass sounds more full, giving the HD800S, these two key differences giving the HD800S a richer, more musical tone. To my ears, this is done without sacrificing resolution, making it a clear win for the newer model, for me.
The Sennheiser HD800S more readily gives up the magic of this line's remarkable ring-driver platform than its predecessor. When the original HD 800 is matched up in a system well, it's truly remarkable. It just happens now in a greater variety of system setups with the HD 800S. Simply put, one of the best headphones ever made was made better, and the HD 800 platform's legacy is the stronger for it.
NAD VISO HP50
After his success with his own PSB headphones, Paul Barton turned his attention to a headphone for NAD Electronics. The resulting headphone--the NAD VISO HP50--is, in my opinion, his best headphone yet. To my ears, there's a familial sonic resemblance to the PSB M4U 1, both of which use Barton's "RoomFeel" technology, which is intended to provide the rich and natural experience of listening to a set of high-end loudspeakers in a room.
Like its PSB siblings (I call them siblings since they have the same father in Barton), the NAD VISO HP50 sounds outstanding, with impactful bass that is very taut and well controlled. The overall balance of the VISO HP50 is, to my ears, just slightly on the warmer side, but still very resolving. Again, listening to it reminds me at times of its PSB sibs, but with greater refinement and a smoother presentation. Like the Sony MDR-1R and the Sennheiser MOMENTUM--two of my other favorite portable over-ears--the VISO HP50 is mellow enough to make for fatigue-free long-term listening, yet detailed enough to get the audiophile in me deep into the music.
Additionally, in designing the NAD VISO HP50, Barton addressed two of my biggest quibbles about its largish PSB siblings, with the HP50 being more compact, and able to fold flat for greater portability. However, the NAD, like its PSB relatives, is still rather large and awkward on the head (especially when viewed from the front).
Without a doubt, though, the NAD VISO HP50 is one of the easiest to recommend headphones at its price, and can very capably serve as both a portable over-ear or one's main headphone at the desk.
If, as I said in its entry, the Sony MDR-ZX700 is a sort of modern spin on the circa-1980's MDR-V6, then the MDR-7520 is still a further evolution and refinement of the monitor sound the MDR-V6 represented in its heyday.
Let's get one thing straight before I continue: The MDR-7520 is not the same headphone as the now-discontinued (in the U.S.) MDR-Z1000. That was something I always assumed, but a belief I had banished for me in a head-to-head comparison of the two with Sony's Naotaka "Nao" Tsunoda (Nao was the lead engineer for these products). They do look similar, but they definitely sound different, with the MDR-7520's signature the one I preferred, its bass more impactful, and its image more spacious.
The pro audio market MDR-7520 has grown into one of my top choices for a sub-$500 closed headphone. While the newer Sony MDR-1R is also one of my favorites with its smooth-yet-detailed presentation, the MDR-7520 is often what I turn to when I want a closed around-the-ear that's more even-keeled (the MDR-7520's bass, though impactful, sounds less bumped-up to me than the MDR-1R's), and less polite, more revealing. I tend to prefer the MDR-1R when I know the music I'll be listening to is going to be all over the map, and the MDR-7520 when I'm queuing up my highest fidelity recordings, most of which are jazz and classical recordings. I'd have to give a slight edge to the MDR-7520 in imaging, too--image placement just seems a bit more precise with it.
Yes, its sibling, the MDR-1R, with its comfort advantage, fold-flat design, and smoother presentation, may see more general use from me; but the MDR-7520 has become an important, key member of my closed headphone stable. The MDR-7520 is now one of my primary go-to cans for reference sound in closed cans under $500.
Sennheiser HD 660 S
14 years ago the Sennheiser HD650 was released, and it hasn't ceased being one of the standards in our world for one moment since. A magnificently scalable headphone, the HD650 can be driven by good portable rigs to great effect, or ascend mountains if you want to build top-flight rigs in front of it. Crafting worthy successors to legends can be a challenging business, but that's just what Sennheiser has done. I think the new Sennheiser HD660S represents enough of an improvement that most HD650 fans will prefer it.
The Sennheiser HD660S is definitely more like the HD650 than it is different from it, and that's obvious the moment you see it. They've decided not to completely upend a formula that has worked so well for them -- and for us -- for nearly 25 years, beginning with the Sennheiser HD580 in the early 90's. In fact, if you were to take a 1995 Sennheiser HD580 Jubilee -- a special edition of the HD580 with metal grilles instead of the regular HD580's plastic ones -- and look at it next to the brand new HD660S, you might at first blush think you were looking at two different colorways of the same headphone. Again, it's a blueprint that's worked so well -- a form factor that's proven comfortable, quite durable, and a suitable platform to engineer legendary sound on -- it's been going for nearly 25 years. It's worked so well for so long, why stray completely from that formula? They didn't.
Still, the HD660S's look has been modernized, with a gorgeous new finish described by Sennheiser as "matte black and anthracite," and a boldly asymmetric "Sennheiser" logo placement on the headband. And there are also new grilles that add a bit of bulged-out flair to show off the stylish Sennheiser insignias. These aesthetic changes modernize without abandoning this platform's tradition.
There is a big change inside the headphone, though, and the most ardent, geeky Sennheiser fans will almost immediately see past all the similarities to notice it. Visible through the grille, there's a new driver in the Sennheiser HD660S, and it is of course one of the primary engines of the sonic changes and improvements. And when I say a "new driver," I'm talking about still another derivation. The Sennheiser HD660S's driver descends from Sennheiser's HD700, and in the form it takes within the Sennheiser HD660S, it certainly works a treat. So the dependence on the classic platform around that driver assures enough similarities to keep the HD660S's sound familial, but the careful engineering of that new driver into that platform gave rise to improvements that 25 years should yield.
One other key change Sennheiser has made with the HD660S is to lower the nominal impedance of the headphone from the HD650's 300Ω to 150Ω. The sensitivity has also been increased, and both of these changes give the HD660S increased drive flexibility, with its performance envelope more easily taken advantage of even with premium portable rigs. Despite being a more forgiving load for easier matchups with portable and more modest rigs, I've found the HD660S is still a fantastically scalable headphone that answers as its predecessor did to the placement of top-notch rigs in front of it.
The Sennheiser HD660S, in direct comparison to the now-classic Sennheiser HD650, is clearly a more resolving headphone. Over the years, some have felt the HD600/650 a bit veiled sounding, other (myself included) did not. This age-old debate raged on the forum for years, so much so that one of the Head-Fi'ers (and I can't remember exactly who) came up with an emoticon that represented the beating of the Sennheiser veil horse...
...in case you saw it and were ever wondering what on earth that emoticon is -- now you know. Again, though, I was not among those who felt the HD600/650 veiled.
Either way, the Sennheiser HD660S should put any such discussion to rest. In direct comparison to its predecessor, the HD660S is, again, more resolving -- a clearer window into the recording. This is particularly evident when listening to denser, busier music, where you'll almost certainly notice better separation of the performance's distinct elements with the HD660S, but never in a way that betrays cohesion. There's more detail across the audio band -- if you liked the level of precision of the HD650, you'll like the HD660S's even more. Even if you think you don't want more resolution from your HD650, trust me, you want more resolution from our HD650.
Even though the driver is based on the Sennheiser HD 700's engine, the HD660S does not sound like an HD700. It still sounds like an HD600-series headphone through and through, only improved. If I hadn't been told so, and if I didn't see the obvious HD700 driver resemblance, I wouldn't have guessed there was any HD700 technological tie-in simply from listening. What would I have guessed? I'd have guessed that they had come up with an HD800-like ring driver for the HD600-type chassis to get the improved performance. No, it doesn't sound like an HD 800 either, but the improved detail retrieval now puts it more in league with the HD800, though the HD800 (and especially the HD800S which I prefer to the HD800) is still the more resolving headphone.
If the resolution has improved (and it has), the tonal balance of the Sennheiser HD660S is one area that it's more similar to its predecessor. To my ears, though, the HD660S sonically offers more flesh, more meat, more impact across the audio band. Also, the treble sounds more extended, faster, with more shimmer -- but still smooth and more refined. That sense of speed and control exists at the other end, too, the bass sounding more precise, more responsive.
In terms of imaging, the Sennheiser HD660S's soundstage width is similar to the HD650. There is, however, an immediacy with up-close sonic image objects (perhaps owing to the improved resolution throughout) that gives the HD660S's imaging a greater sense of depth for me.
To my ears, then, the HD660S represents no compromise, no disadvantage in a direct comparison with its predecessor. To pull off all these sonic improvements while maintaining the familiar overall balance of the HD650 is a work of obvious finesse and careful engineering.
In addition to its more modern aesthetic and improved sonic performance, the Sennheiser HD660S is also packaged in a manner that recognizes some of the changes in our world that the past 25 years have brought. Included with the HD660S are two cables. One is terminated in the traditional 6.35mm (1/4") stereo plug, with a flexible 6.35mm-to-3.5mm (1/4"-to-miniplug) adapter. The other is terminated with the 4.4mm five-pole balanced "Pentaconn" connector (developed by Sony) that we hope will become the new standard for both desktop and portable balanced connections.
Again, crafting worthy successors to legends is a very tricky business. With the HD660S, Sennheiser shows how you improve upon a classic without betraying its legacy. I won't be at all surprised if the HD660S marks a further decade or two of vibrant life for this distinguished Sennheiser platform.
AKG / Massdrop K7XX
There are at least a couple of long-time Head-Fi'ers working at Massdrop, and it certainly shows, as many of Massdrop's famed "Drops" are headphone audio products. They decided to use a Drop to rekindle a very well-regarded headphone from the recent pages of AKG's history book. That headphone? The quite-beloved AKG K702 65th Anniversary Edition.
Here's the thing, though: Massdrop's version is called the AKG K7XX, and it's available exclusively through them. Gone are the "65th Anniversary" markings, the blue stitching and other blue highlights, replaced by K7XX badges and a stealthier blacked-out treatment. There's also a very subtle, tasteful "Massdrop" logo on one side (of the inside) of the headband, to remind you who brought you this gem of a headphone for only 200 bucks. From what I can tell, colors and badges aside, the K7XX is the K702 65th Anniversary Edition, bump-free comfort strap headband and all.
I really like AKG's K550, but its lean-ish signature--much as I enjoy it when I'm in the mood--is not one with particularly wide appeal. The AKG K812, which I love, is AKG's current flagship, and priced accordingly. Without delving into discontinued models, then, I have to say the AKG K7XX is, for me, the most desirable current-production AKG, unless you're willing to jump up to $1500 for the K812 (and if you're an AKG fan with that kind of budget, definitely audition the K812).
What's to love about the AKG/Massdrop K7XX? Well, if you've tended to find many of AKG's headphone likable but too lean or a touch brash, then the K7XX's definitely-smooth-for-an-AKG-but-still-an-AKG sound will almost certainly have you grinning big. An AKG with some nice presence and body down low? Yes. But what about the AKG top end? Yes, it's there, but tamer to my ears than the K701 I have here. The tradeoff is losing a bit of air and shimmer to its more common AKG siblings, but, for my tastes, it's a positive tradeoff.
If you're an AKG aficionado, the AKG/Massdrop K7XX is a must-own, and, at only $200, is an outrageously strong value. Yes, you can still find the K702 65th Anniversary Edition out there, but you will almost certainly be paying substantially more for what is essentially the exact same headphone.
For aspiring audiophiles trying to find their first pair of ‘audiophile-oriented’ headphones with a clean uncolored sound signature as well as veteran audiophiles searching for a pair of reference-quality headphones with a high performance/price ratio to complement their existing collection, I would highly recommend the AKG K7xx.
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Focal Utopia and Elear
Though many high-end loudspeaker manufacturers have entered the premium headphone market, few if any of them have made headphones with the same level of technology, innovation, materials and craftsmanship that they've applied to their premium speakers. Often, a loudspeaker company's headphones bear no apparent relation whatsoever to the company's heritage or any of its loudspeaker products. Even those companies making cost-no-object speakers have, up until now, focused on headphones that are more affordable, more reasonably priced.
Back in 2011, high-end French loudspeaker manufacturer Focal entered the headphone market this way, with their Spirit line of headphones, with the Spirit One S, the Spirit Classic, and the Spirit Professional being the current models in the line. These headphones actually all sound quite nice, are relatively affordable, and are owned by many people in this community. As nice as these Spirit models are, though, they've never screamed Focal
to me. I enjoy Focal's affordable headphones and can recommend them at their price points, but they've never reminded me of Focal's cost-no-object loudspeakers, or Focal's heritage.
Earlier this year, though, Focal rocked the premium headphone world with two new ultra-premium headphones--the Focal Elear, priced at $999, and their new flagship Focal Utopia, priced at $3999. Both headphones, in my opinion--based on sound quality at their prices, their designs, ergonomics, and based on technical performance/measured performance--make a strong case for being among the finest moving coil dynamic headphones ever crafted. And to develop and manufacture these two new headphones, Focal dedicated the kind of resources and know-how that they've used to develop magnificent hand-built speakers like their flagship $8000-per-pair Focal SM9 studio monitors, and their price-no-object flagship audiophile loudspeaker, the over-$200,000-per-pair Focal Grand Utopia EM.
To develop these headphones Focal turned to the engineers they already had on staff at their St. Etienne, France headquarters--engineers with decades of experience designing and crafting top-flight loudspeakers, and who approached the Elear and Utopia headphones as if they were designing ultra-near-field, full-range single-driver loudspeakers. Research and development of these two top Focal models started soon after they launched their Spirit line, and continued for several years, until they were launched in 2016. The end results are headphone drivers that are so clearly informed and influenced by the Focal team's long history developing and making loudspeakers, that I can't think of any other moving coil dynamic headphone drivers that are more loudspeaker-like in terms of design than those in the Elear and Utopia. And given that Focal's engineers weren't headphone specialists going into it, their approach to headphone driver design was fresh and unconventional, and the results remarkable. And, as they do with their premium loudspeakers, Focal manufacturers the Elear and Utopia using their most skilled employees, building them largely by hand, with rigorous testing throughout the manufacturing process, and even using machinery that Focal literally designs and builds in an in-house machine shop.
How fresh and unconventional? While most headphone companies are moving toward larger diameter electrodynamic drivers--with 50mm, 53mm, and even 70mm diameters being employed--Focal decided to go a completely different route. Their engineers instead went with what they're calling a 40mm driver, but that is actually a bit smaller than most 40mm drivers (in terms of cone diameter) due to the huge surrounds Focal employed (which I'll get to momentarily).
To make up for the smaller diameter diaphragms, Focal made another strange call, and that was to design for a huge X-max, which is the maximum distance a diaphragm or cone can move linearly from rest. Encircling the cones, then, are the largest surrounds you're likely to ever see on a headphone driver, to allow for very long-throw cone excursion--the longest X-max I've ever seen relative to the driver's diameter. Those surrounds are also extremelythin, allowing the cones to flutter with the slightest input, as if floating on air.
Further, their "cones" aren't so much cones as they are inverted domes that Focal calls "M-Shaped Domes" (due to their cross section), a design they also use in their flagship loudspeaker tweeters. These inverted domes are made of solid metal--an aluminum-magnesium alloy in the Elear, and solid beryllium in the Utopia--which, in concert with their shape and small diameter, are incredibly rigid (especially the beryllium one).
Each driver's voice coil is also the widest voice coil I've ever seen relative to dome diameter, going almost all the way to the dome's edge. These voice coils incorporate another first, which is that they're formerless--that is, they are not wrapped around a base material (a tube of material called a former), which shaves a heap of moving mass from the motor.
Finally, the magnet structure is entirely unique, with the most open design I've yet seen in any driver of this type. The opening is so big and unobstructed that you can see the back of the dome clearly through the center of the magnet.
Rigidity. Control. Speed. Excursion. Very unconventional design for a headphone, and clearly informed by their loudspeaker engineering expertise. Gimmicky? No, not at all. It's genius engineering. Does it all work? The measured results certainly confirm it. We have never measured an electrodynamic headphone with better overall measured performance than either the Focal Elear or Utopia.
It's not just their drivers that are well designed, but the entire headphone, in both cases. In my opinion, the Elear and Utopia are among the most beautiful headphones on the market today. They are gorgeous. The bits and pieces of both headphones all seem to flow into one another, without any abrupt or out-of-place lines or breaks in their overall flowing forms. They're beautiful to look at, and look fantastic both off and on the head. I also want to make a comment about build quality, as both headphones feel like ultra luxury cars. Shake them and things don't wiggle or rattle. Handling them reveals very solid feeling builds. Aesthetically, and in terms of build quality, the Focal Elear and Utopia are at the top of the heap.
Both headphones are also extremely comfortable. I've very happily listened to both for many hours straight, many times, and I can wear either for long hours without fatigue. As Nicolas stated, no matter your head shape or size, the headbands of both headphones seem to maximize head contact surface area for better, more comfortable weight distribution. I find the comfort of both of these headphones at about the same level as something like the Sennheiser HD800 and HD800S, which I personally find exceedingly comfortable headphones, too.
The Elear and Utopia both come with a nicely built four-meter cable terminated with a 1/4" stereo plug. It's a heavier-grade cable, so, at four meters, it's a heavy cable. As nice as the included cables are, they're for too long for me, so I don't use them. Instead, I ordered a much shorter Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable for the Elear, and a short Black Dragon cable for the Utopia. By the way on the earpiece sides, the connectors do differ between the two models. The Elear uses one 3.5mm mono plug into each earpiece, and the Utopia uses one 9.5mm LEMO plug into each earpiece.
Of course, the most important thing is how these headphones sound, and both are phenomenal entries at their respective price points. Let's start at the top, with the $4000 Focal Utopia. To my ears, the Utopia is one of the most resolving headphones on the market today. In terms of resolution, the Utopia's ability to reveal the most delicate, gauzy, wispy details puts it in rarefied air. Mind you, there are substantially less expensive headphones that I'd call its competitors, but, as a package, the Utopia's entire delivery is very well put together, and very cohesive.
For example, the HiFiMAN HE-1000--still my standard-setter for bass--can better convey the giant waves of a charged acoustic more convincingly than perhaps any other headphone I've heard, regardless of type, regardless of price--I do think its gigantic diaphragms help make the HE-1000 what it is, and its bass performance is among the things I find most mesmerizing about the huge HiFiMAN. However, in terms of refinement from the mids to the highs, the Utopia edges out the HE-1000 to me.
Versus the far less expensive Sennheiser HD800S, I also give the Utopia the edge, in terms of its deep bass presence, and the sense that, overall, I'm hearing a little deeper into the recording with the Focal than the big Sennheiser--it's uncovering more of the diaphanous stuff than the HD800S does, and, given how remarkable the HD800S is in that regard, that's high praise for the new flagship Focal. Versus the original Sennheiser HD800, again, the Focal, for me, is the better headphone, conveying all the detail, but without that occasional bite that I hear on the original HD800.
In terms of the Utopia's tonal balance, it's largely neutral, very linear, which is why I know HD800 and HD800S owners will probably be among the first to want to audition the Utopia, to see if it's a worthwhile upgrade, considering the giant price leap. While I'd describe its spectral balance as being on the more neutral side, the Utopia has a liveliness across the entire audioband--from its deep, extended bass, through to as high into the treble that I can hear--that gives it an energy of realism and presence that's rather addictive. Despite its flatter tonal balance, the Utopia is not flat sounding in the boring sense--not at all.
In terms of measured performance, the Utopia is among the best electrodynamic headphones we've yet measured here at Head-Fi. Its bass is nearly flat down to 10Hz, and its total harmonic distortion is the lowest we've yet measured from a moving coil dynamic headphone. I'll be surprised if any other electrodynamic headphones we have here are able to top the Utopia, especially in terms of its distortion performance.
The Utopia is an incredible headphone, period. Incredible.
Do I recommend it? If you've got the budget and you're shopping for top-flight headphones, then, yes, without hesitation, the Focal Utopia has to be included on your audition list.
As impressed as I am by the Utopia, there's a part of me that's even more excited about the Elear. No, the Elear can't quite match its flagship sibling in terms of overall performance, but it's also only a quarter the price at $999. Like the Utopia, the Elear is a very revealing, very resolving headphone--just not quite at the level of the Utopia. But you know what? I still consider the Elear one of the Utopia's competitors, and that's a remarkable thing. While it can't out-resolve its sibling, it is at a level of resolution that, to my ears, puts it squarely with the best of what's available anywhere near its price, regardless of driver type. The Elear also offers a different sonic flavor than the Utopia, and I think it's a flavor a lot of people in this community will like--A LOT.
Its tonal balance, versus the Utopia, is richer. Richer bass, richer midrange. Switching from the Utopia immediately to the Elear, you'll notice you're giving up a bit of resolution--and, at first blush, the Elear almost sounds thick. Then you realize that richness--which I do not find overpowering in the least, and is perhaps more like where my tonal tastes have been swinging the past couple of years anyway--that richness does not, to my ears, come at the expense of flabbiness. It's still taut, still fast, still detailed. Its tonal balance reminds me of the Utopia's, but with room gain figured in, or what PSB calls "ROOM FEEL." The Elear is an incredible option to consider if you're shopping for headphones in the $1000 range, or even higher.
Even in terms of its measured performance, we found the Elear to be nipping at the heels of the $4000 Utopia. Yes, you can see its frequency response isn't quite as linear, owing to the richer than neutral tonal balance Focal obviously opted for with the Elear. But its distortion performance is almost as strong as the Utopia's! For its richer tonal balance, for its price of only $1000, for how well it keeps up with its far more expensive sibling in so many ways, I have to say the Focal Elear is in some ways the more exciting headphone of the two for me. I've been carrying it everywhere I go, driving it with my iPhone and an AudioQuest Dragonfly Red amp/DAC, with an Onkyo DP-X1 digital audio player, and also with the Astell&Kern AK380. All of these portable options are great for driving the Utopia, too, but I'm just not as likely to tote a $4000 headphone around for obvious reasons.
Both the Elear and Utopia have nominal impedance of 80 ohms. Both have rated sensitivity of 104 decibels at a milliwatt at 1 kilohertz. In other words, both of these headphones are very versatile, and quite easy to drive. The Elear's tonal balance perhaps makes it a bit more forgiving, and so can make it an easier match. What's great, though, is that both scale in performance, depending on what kind of system you put in front of it.
I've found the Utopia to be particularly well-paired with a few tube amps we have on hand. The Woo Audio WA8 gives the Utopia a wonderfully lush tone--I find this combo pretty captivating, but it's a bit of departure from the Utopia's standard character. When I've wanted some of the added richness and warmth of tubes, but with a little less imparted thickness, I've turned to the Dragon Inspire IHA-1 Tube Headphone Amp from Moon Audio. Some solid state offerings that I've had great success with both of these headphones with include the Simaudio 430HA and the Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon, either of those usually driven by the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC; and the Meridian Prime has also been a good match as a desktop DAC/amp combo for both, and it'll support MQA when that becomes more widely available.
As far as my top choices go? The French totaldac d1-integral-headphone, which is a discrete R2R DAC made with a hundred high-precision naked resistors, is among my top choices. This particular totaldac model is so named because it incorporates a built-in headphone amp, as well as a Roon-Ready music server. The totaldac d1-integral-headphone is beautifully smooth sounding, has beautiful airy imaging, and makes for one heck of an all-French ultra-high-end system with either or both of the new Focal flagships.
In terms of ultimate fidelity with these headphones so far, though, I'd have to give the edge to Chord Electronics' DAVE. It's great with both Focals--and just about any other headphone you plug into it. When paired with the Utopia, the sheer resolution and amount of detail and information being hurled at me are otherworldly. Spectacular stuff. The Chord DAVE seems to extract more information from my best recordings than any other DAC I've ever used, and when you're feeding one of the most resolving headphones on earth, it's potent.
In my opinion, the Focal Elear and Focal Utopia are among the most important, and certainly among the best, headphones in the world--for their innovation, performance, sound. I hope more high-end loudspeaker manufacturers follow suit, making headphones that are true reflections of the very best that their engineers can develop and deliver. Congratulations to the team at Focal for the effort and the results with both of these magnificent headphones.
It’s a little warm, has ample bass, a clean midrange that allows for impressive instrument separation in well-recorded, mixed and mastered music (modern production methods particularly) and has a comfortable treble extension that allows for the resolve and slam to happen. It’s easy to drive, has good weight distribution and is comfortable to wear – all while looking like a premium product.
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Aamer Qureshi (Aornic)
It is really is an excellent headphone! Superbly transparent without any artificial analytical character. The tonality, dynamic, transparency are awesome and really in good balance! Superb headphone! Simply one of the best!
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Shure SRH1540 and SRH1840
In 2013, Shure contacted me to ask if I wanted to have an advance listen to a new closed, over-ear flagship headphone to be released later in the year. The answer was an obvious "yes," but there were some admitted reservations about what to expect, as a couple of their previous over-ears--the Shure SRH940 and SRH1440--were definitely not my cup of tea, being, to my ears, too bright, too reedy, too lean. (The veteran Shure SRH840 and their flagship open SRH1840--which I'm getting to in a minute--I definitely do like.)
Fortunately, in terms of sonic performance, Shure absolutely stuck their landing with the SRH1540, making what I feel is their best over-ear headphone so far. With fantastic, full, controlled bass (though emphasized), and excellent, evenhanded, monitor-like detail and balance from the mids on up. It's a safe tuning that I think sounds awesome with every music genre I listen to (and I listen to just about everything).
The Shure SRH1540 is also insanely comfortable--one of the most comfortable large, full-size over-ear headphones I've got. Weighing just over 10 ounces, it's very light for its size. Perhaps the single biggest contributors to the SRH1540's comfort are its Alcantara earpads. Alcantara might be my favorite synthetic earpad material, with its ultra-soft, sueded hand, and perforated on the SRH1540 which makes it very breathable. Filled with what feels to me like memory foam, these are among the most plush, most comfortable earpads of any headphone.
The SRH1540 isolates well, too. Along with the pads, which are plush enough to quickly create a good seal, the closed earcups do a fine job of keeping your music in, and the world around you muted. The outside of the earcups are clad in genuine carbon fiber, which I believe was chosen in part for its resistance to resonance--and those carbon fiber outside plates look gorgeous, too.
Again, in my opinion, the SRH1540 is Shure's best over-ear headphone so far, and an easy recommendation at its $499 price. If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm a big fan of this latest Shure over-ear. Make sure to check out our Head-Fi TV episode about the Shure SRH1540.
Now you may have noticed that the Shure SRH1840, which certainly isn't new (released back in late 2011), has made it into this update of the Buying Guide (though wasn't in the guide previously). Why? Though I really do like the SRH1840, I felt its original price of around $700 put it in a tough spot, given what else is out there at the price. Some time since its release, however, the SRH1840's street price has fallen to around $499, and, at that price, I think it definitely is a candidate for anyone looking for a good, open, full-sized headphone.
With its bass sounding shy of neutral to me, neutrality through the mids, and treble that is a bit hotter than neutral, the Shure SRH1840's tonal balance is on the leaner side to me. It's a revealing headphone, though, and images nice and big. Again, I really like this headphone, and, at its new lower price, it's easy for me to recommend, which is why it's now in this guide. (You can click here to read my more detailed impressions of the Shure SRH1840.)
Let me say that for a closed back, these are superb. I don't know how Shure does this, but they manage to make their closed back have one of the best soundstage for a closed back.
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Master & Dynamic MH30 and MH40
I've been seeing ads for these gorgeous headphones all over the web, and frequently on Head-Fi. Too good to be true, I thought. They won't look nearly as nice in person, or feel nearly as nice in the hand as in the ads, I thought. Then last month at Munich High End, I ran into Scott Byrer of Master & Dynamic at a social function. He had one of Master & Dynamic's MH40's around his neck. I asked him if I could see it, he handed it to me, and my first thought was that the headphone looked and felt every bit as good in the hand as it did in the ads. The leather was at least as soft and supple as it looked in the ads. The metal parts were as solid, and the knurling as sharp and defined, as it all looked in the ads. There was a satisfying heft. There are very few headphones I can say this about, but anywhere I touched the MH40 (excepting the cable), I was touching either metal or leather. It was loud there, so I didn't give the MH40 a listen right then, but arranged with Scott to try the MH30 and MH40 after we returned to the States.
When it comes to construction and materials, both the Master & Dynamic MH30 and MH40 have a lot in common. Both have forged aluminum ear cup bodies. Yes, forged aluminum; no, this is most certainly not typical. Also, the aluminum on both the MH30 and MH40 is anodized or PVD (physical vapor deposition) coated, not painted. The other metal parts are stainless steel. All skin-touching hides are an ultra-soft grade of lambskin, and the outside is covered with heavy grain premium cowhide. There are screws, too--a lot of them--in lieu of glues. What's also amazing is what you see when you pull the ear pads off, each of which, by the way, is held on with three guide posts and very strong magnets.
On almost every other headphone, pulling the ear pads off reveals roughly hewn bits and bobs, finished like they were never meant to be seen. On the MH30 and MH40, Master & Dynamic finishes what's underneath the ear pads to the same degree they do the rest of the headphone. The first time I saw this, I was reminded of a childhood memory of when my brother and I took apart our dad's old Omega wristwatch. We were both in awe of the fact that locked inside the hermetically sealed watch case, the watch movement's bridges and rotor were beautifully finished. We marveled at the care given to something so unlikely ever to be seen by the person who pays for it. Again, that’s the feeling I had when I lifted the Master & Dynamic ear pads from their mounts.
The Master & Dynamic MH30 is Master & Dynamic's supra-aural (on-the-ear) headphone. Its round ear cups house 40mm neodymium drivers. The MH40 is their flagship, and is a circumaural (around-the-ear) design, with its oval-shaped ear cups containing 45mm neodymium drivers. Nominal impedance for both models is 32Ω. It's important to note that both headphones are closed, which the MH40's grille (there only for styling) might visually otherwise suggest.
Unfortunately, I ran into a major problem with the MH30 right away. Even with its headband pulled to maximum size, the MH30 is too small for my large noggin. Pulled down very hard--the headband straining against the top of my head--I can get the ear cups over my ears, but they angle unnaturally in doing so. The MH30 uses shorter pieces on the MH30's headband (relative to the MH40). I'm not sure why Master & Dynamic didn't use, for example, the longer yoke pieces of the MH40. Perhaps it was in some way related to accommodating the MH30's folding mechanism--which, by the way, I never use, as the earpieces tend to bang and rub against each other when I fold the MH30. It's a shame, too, because the MH30 (from what I can tell when forcing it over my ears) may actually have a slight sound advantage over its larger sibling, its mid-treble seeming a bit livelier to me in comparison. The MH30 does fit on @joe's head, and he prefers it to the MH40. If your head is small to medium sized, I imagine the MH30 will fit you fine--anyone whose head approaches large, however, should approach the MH30 with some caution. If Master & Dynamic ever revises the MH30's headband to accommodate a wider range of head sizes (which I strongly suggest they do), I'll be first in line to order one.
Thankfully, the MH40 makes it fully over my ears, and my average-sized ears ears fit comfortably inside the ear cups, but only just. Larger ears may touch the insides more, but I imagine all but the largest ears will find the ear pads of the MH40 comfortable. The coziness is helped by the softness of the foam padding, and the suppleness of the lambskin covering. Though the headband's padding is on the thinner side, there's enough cushioning there--combined with a radius that works very well atop my head--to make the headband very comfortable for me. In terms of clamping force, I also find it moderate and comfortable. Keep in mind, this is a headphone crafted of a lot of metal and leather, so it's not a featherweight at 360 grams (12.7 ounces). So, no, it won't feel as air-light on your head as (for example) a Sennheiser HD 598, but the MH40 wears its weight well, and I can wear it for hours without problem.
The MH40's sound is on the richer side, with bass that's prominent and hard-hitting, but taut and controlled enough to keep it in audio enthusiast territory, and away from boomy. In other words, the bass has enough energy to inject some fun into the equation, yet enough detail around notes to keep its low end honest, and I find that almost ideal for on-the-go use. The MH40's midrange has some richness in its presence, and is moderately detailed, but I'd definitely characterize its midband as more creamy than precise. Where the MH40 loses a few points with me, in terms of sound, is in its treble presentation, giving up more airiness than I'd find ideal, but not to a degree that takes away my ability to thoroughly enjoy this headphone. In terms of imaging, the MH40 presents a cohesive image, but it definitely sounds like the closed-back headphone that it is. It also isolates quite well. Overall, I find the MH40 to sound very fun, very versatile, and, with it, I really enjoy listening to music of all genres.
Both the MH30 and MH40 are driven easily by my iPhone 6 Plus, so they’re ideally suited for pairing with smartphones, tablets, and portable music players. Both come well equipped, each coming with a three-button mobile-friendly cable and a longer plain cable, a nicely matched 1/4" adapter, a cylindrical leather case for storage of small bits and pieces, and a nice carrying bag that includes an attached internal cable pouch and a strong magnetic closure.
I can easily recommend the Master & Dynamic MH30 for someone with no larger than a medium-sized head whose looking for a phenomenally well-built, beautiful, on-ear headphone. The MH40 is the easier recommendation, though, with equivalently fantastic build quality and materials, but with more versatile fit, greater comfort, and what I consider an even more fetching design. The Master & Dynamic MH40, for all of these reasons, is currently one of my favorite on-the-go headphones, and a remarkable first effort from such a young company.
NOTE: Master & Dynamic also makes a gorgeous boom mic that matches both the MH30 and MH40 that solidly improves outgoing voice clarity. For more information about the Master & Dynamic Boom Mic, see the review of it in the Cables & Accessories section of this guide by clicking here.
The MH40 combines great aesthetics, build quality, and sound quality into a headphone that is wonderful for portable daily use. If you're looking for a warmer pair of headphones with a rich, lush sound, then I'd happily recommend the MH40. It definitely won't disappoint.
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While working on the wide array of things I do at Head-Fi HQ, one of the headphones I've been using lately is the Audeze SINE.
Fit for me is pretty solid. With my larger pinnae, I'm actually surprised that my ears pretty much fit inside the cups of the SINE. While I do feel some clamp, I don't feel that the tops of my ears are being clamped, so I've got a pretty solid fit.
What's cool about the SINE is that it can be enjoyed via the stock cable or through my iPhone's Lightning port via the CIPHER cable.
With the stock cable, bass is clean and makes its presence known, but it doesn't overshadow the other ranges. In fact, it makes sure to step back a bit. I can listen to a couple of my personal test tracks - like Lorde's "Royals" and Die Antwoord's "Fatty Boom Boom" - and not feel overwhelmed by the bass. It allows me to hear the mids and highs clearly, and I can listen to the more subtle details in these songs that I've missed out when using other headphones.
Listening to Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine" is playful as always, with the marimba dancing around while the bass line keeps the track moving in the background. I love the sound of the chime strikes through the SINE, and Fiona's voice stays front, focused, and center. There's some space here, but it's still an intimate experience with Ms. Apple through the SINE.
Switching to the CIPHER cable gives me a different experience. Revisiting Fiona Apple gives me a more full-bodied experience. The instruments are now filling every bit of space with renewed interest, this time wrapping Fiona's voice in a blanket of sound. The overall perceived space still feels similar, but all of the musicians have moved from mezzo piano to forte, adding more dynamics. With the CIPHER cable, "Royals" is a much more enjoyable track for me, with a bit more bass to drive the experience, and more body to Lorde's voice. And for rock? If you're not using the SINE with the CIPHER cable, you're missing out. Tool's "Sober" rocks hard, and Les Claypool's bass work shines in Primus' "Lacquer Head". With the stock cable, I find the SINE to be more treble focused, and for rock, I do prefer the pop in bass that the CIPHER cable is offering.
Another guilty pleasure of mine is the "Misty Mountains" track from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". While enjoyable with the stock cable, I find that I much prefer the warmth I seem to get when paired with the CIPHER cable.
If you're a stationary listener and prefer to listen with your computer being your media player, get yourself a license for Roon and enable the Audeze presets for the SINE. I feel it gives more depth and puts me more into the recording than the stock setup.
While I think the Audeze SINE is a fine headphone for many, I think its value goes up when you pair it with the CIPHER cable or the Roon Audeze preset. Both make this a strong value and an enjoyable listen.
(Note: I haven't had time to try out Audeze's Reveal plugins or the most recent Roon update at the time of this writing, but I look forward to trying those with the SINE in the future.)
V-MODA's M-80 earned a place as one of the top Head-Fi choices for a closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (alongside the likes of the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II and the beyerdynamic DT 1350). With its rich, detailed mids, and smooth treble response, and full bass (but certainly not overblown, to my ears), the M-80 became one of the standards in this class of headphones. And though, technically, the M-80 is still on the market (at the time of this writing), V-MODA's XS serves is similar enough to it that we chose to replace the M-80 in this guide with it.
Starting with the low end, to my ears, the XS actually has a touch more energy in the mid-bass than the M-80. Still, though, I prefer the XS's bass presentation, which I find more precise, and more revealing of bass detail than the M-80 musters. The XS's rich, detailed mids are a nice carryover from the M-80. The newer headphone's treble, however, is more refined, and smoother than its older sib's. And, overall, that is actually how I'd describe the sound of the XS relative to the M-80--more refined. To my ears, in terms of sound, the headphone gives up nothing to its older stablemate.
Because the it more than keeps up with the M-80's sound, the biggest story with the XS, in my opinion, are the improvements that come with its physical design, and the changes and innovations there. V-MODA put considerable effort into making the XS more comfortable (and more compact) than the M-80, and it has paid off in spades.
One of the things I've always appreciated about every V-MODA over-ear headphone (both on-ear and around-the-ear) is the durable build quality that comes with their extensive use of metal and relatively straightforward swivel-less designs. While doing away with yoke swivels and joints certainly leads to greater strength, it also results in limited flexibility, especially in terms of earcup articulation. With my M-80, I've rather forceably twisted the headband to better optimize the angle at which the earcups greet my ears. With the XS, however, V-MODA has created a headband that seems to me to be more flexible, and that also seems to apply force to the earcups more evenly than with the M-80. The XS feels less clampy, and sits just as securely--but more evenly on my ears--than the M-80. For me, the XS is the a substantial comfort upgrade over the M-80.
V-MODA's Val Kolton also designed the XS to have a more form-fit appearance on the head. I've seen the XS worn by a good number of people by now, and the headband seems to have the ideal radius and flexibility to keep its lines snug up against heads of just about every shape and size. Because there's so little gap between the XS's headband and the head of the wearer, one of the marketing phrases V-MODA uses for the XS is "Mind The Gap," of course borrowed from the famous London Underground rail system warning. In my opinion, the XS is one of the best looking headphones on the head, with an understated physical presence, but with all the bold design elements of a V-MODA.
Finally, borrowing from the larger V-MODA M-100, the V-MODA XS incorporates V-MODA's awesome folding hinge design. As on the M-100, these folding hinges are things of beauty, super-sleek yet seemingly indestructible, and possessing of a detent *click* sound that reminds me of a well-made folding knife's blade snapping into its open position. And, when folded, the XS fits into its tiny carrying case, making for the smallest supra-aural (on-ear) headphone in its class. Even in a tightly packed messenger bag, when it seems there might only be room for an in-ear monitor, I can usually find a place for the XS.
For its sound, and for its comfort and compactness, the V-MODA XS is easily one of the best on-the-go headphones currently on the market.
If you want a rich, smooth, warm yet detailed, big and dynamic sound in a crazy small portable package I strongly recommend trying the XS out. V-MODA just keeps getting better and better with the quality of their products and they should really be proud of this one.
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There's something--a certain je ne sais quoi--that makes Koss' PortaPro timeless. It's not just its looks, as looks alone might render the mighty PortaPro dated (though there's no denying its vintage aesthetic is part of its charm).
This is a bassy headphone, and its bass defines it--heavy, just shy of sloppy by audiophile standards, but always fun. Despite its bassiness, the PortaPro still manages to sound coherent. Its mids and highs are good, but if you're looking for a mid-centric and/or bright headphone, you're going to have to look elsewhere. Also, if you're a detail freak, walk past the PortaPro.
Koss also released a version of the PortaPro called the PortaPro KTC (Koss Touch Control), which has an inline three-button remote/mic. As an iPhone/iPad/iPod user, the KTC version has become my PortaPro of choice. I was surprised to see Koss give such a concession to smartphone modernity with a headphone as old school as the PortaPro, but I'm thrilled they did. Here's the rub, though: expect to pay at least $30 to $40 more for the KTC version, which I'm guessing is probably due to licensing costs associated with using the made-for-Apple three-button mic/remote design.
Looking for fun sound on the go? And served up with retro-hip style? Put the Koss PortaPro on your list.
...I love the PortaPros for the uncompromising retro-throwback design and sound that somehow feels like it would have been right at home in the 80s.
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In 2013, Fostex decided to show an early prototype of their new planar magnetic headphone at CanJam at RMAF, before the headphone was even given a name. Since then, it has gone through A LOT of development, and it has also earned the name "Fostex TH500RP." The TH500RP is a sort of melding of Fostex's longstanding planar magnetic expertise with the design philosophy and flair of their flagship dynamic Fostex TH900 (and the TH600). The end result is a headphone that may confound those looking to buy their first premium Fostex headphone, as it adds one more excellent option to the top of the Fostex headphone line (accompanied by the TH600, and flagship TH900).
Built largely of aluminum and magnesium, the TH500RP's construction is outstanding, and fully in keeping with the quality that the TH600 and TH900 have spoiled us with. With the large, round earcups, and the perforated grill, the TH500RP looks like the love child of a Stax SR009 and a vintage Fostex.
The TH500RP is very comfortable on my head. I've worn it for hours at a time without any hotspots or clamping force issues. It only weighs 380 grams (13.4 ounces), so, as far as planars go, it is quite light.
Compared to its TH600 and TH900 siblings, the TH500RP is a more subtle headphone, a more even-tempered headphone. The bass emphasis isn't there--in fact, some may find the TH500RP's bass on the lean-ish side; I find its bass more neutral. To my ears, there's certainly no bass emphasis or boost. The TH500RP's midrange is very smooth, and with beautiful tone--I wouldn't describe its mids as bloomy, but, again, relative to pure neutrality, there's some sweetness in the TH500RP's midband. The same goes for its treble presentation. To my ears, it doesn't have the sense of treble extension that, for example, the HE-560 has, but, as with its mids, there's something entirely pleasant and mellifluous about the TH500RP's treble presentation.
Sonically, the TH500RP is not a headphone that wowed me, and, strangely enough, I really mean that as a compliment. It's a revealing headphone, but it's not incisive or analytical, to my ears. It's a headphone that has enough ease about its sound that once it's on my head, it's usually on for dang long time.
I visited Fostex's highly secretive audio labs last year in Japan, and one thing I've learned is that Fostex doesn't leave anything to chance. The overriding character of the TH500RP to me is that it doesn't impose itself on me or the music, and I'm inclined to think that Fostex fully intended that.
The TH500RP is an eminently musical headphone, and if you're shopping in its price range--and if what I've described sounds appealing to you--definitely put it on your audition list.
Shure SRH440 and SRH840
Closed-back, pro-audio-oriented headphones, the SRH440 and SRH840 have found popularity for studio use. However, many audiophiles also appreciate them for their more neutral tonal balances (relative to many other closed headphones in this price range), the SRH440 having none of the bass bloat that many of its closed competitors have. The SRH840 adds a little more bass presence and a touch more midrange bloom. I also find the SRH840's overall presentation a bit more refined.
Though a full-size headphones, both the SRH440 and SRH840 fold into pretty compact, portable bundles.
At its street price of around $100, I think the Shure SRH440 is one of the better bargains in Head-Fi'dom, particularly because it can be challenging to find a good, affordable, neutral-ish closed headphone. If you want a touch more musicality without sacrificing the neutral-for-a-closed-headphone balance, its more refined sibling is still a great deal--and a classic--at around $160.