Drop x THX Panda wireless headphones

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WaveTheory

100+ Head-Fier
Drop THX Panda by WaveTheory
Pros: Good detail and timbre for the product category; a more audiophile oriented sound signature than other mainstream wireless cans; good battery life; good comfort
Cons: SoundID app requires some hoop-jumping and has highly variable effectiveness; not nearly as isolating as ANC cans can be; technical sonic improvement over Bose or Sony ANCs arguably not enough to justify the lack of features and higher price
NOTE: This review was originally published on HiFiGuides forum on 2 Jul 2021.

INTRODUCTION

I’ve had the opportunity to take the Drop Panda Bluetooth wireless headphone for a test run these past few weeks. I moved recently and they got some listening time in as I was packing and unpacking boxes or just sitting down to rest with all my main gear packed away. Now that I’m more settled, I have some time to sit down and write up some thoughts. So let’s get to it…

I’m going to focus a lot on the sound in this review. I’m not going to go into detail about the ergonomics of the buttons, or the phone call quality, etc. I don’t feel very qualified to comment on those aspects, anyway. But, hopefully I’ve earned a modicum of credibility in sound descriptions.

TL;DR

The Panda is good for what it is, a wireless, full sized headphone. For a Bluetooth headphone it brings reasonably good detail and timbre while breaking from other products in this category by providing a more audiophile targeted neutral sound signature. Using the SoundID app improves some aspects of the sonic performance at the expense of some others...once I got it to work, that is. The Panda still suffers from some of the same limitations of being a wireless headphone, though, and arguably its sonic performance isn’t a big enough improvement over some other Bluetooth cans that also have active noise cancelling and other convenience features to justify its cost.

KNOW YOUR REVIEWER

My preferred genres are rock/metal and classical/orchestral music. I’m getting to know jazz more and enjoying quite a bit. I also listen to some EDM and hip-hop. My hearing quirks include a high sensitivity to midrange frequencies from just under 1KHz to around 3Khz, give or take. My ears are thus quick to perceive “shoutiness” in headphones in particular. I describe “shoutiness” as an emphasis on the ‘ou’ sound of ‘shout.’ It’s a forwardness in the neighborhood of 1KHz and/or on the first one or two harmonics above it (when I make the sound ‘ooooowwwww’ into a spectrum analyzer the dominant frequency on the vowel sound is around 930Hz, which also means harmonic spikes occur again at around 1860Hz and 2790Hz). In the extreme, it can have the tonal effect of sounding like a vocalist is speaking or singing through a toilet paper tube or cupping their hands over their mouth. It can also give instruments like piano, but especially brass instruments, an added ‘honk’ to their sound. I also get distracted by sibilance, or sharp ‘s’ and ‘t’ sounds that can make ssssingers sssssound like they’re forssssssing esssss ssssssounds aggresssssssively. Sibilance does not physically hurt my ears nearly as quickly as shout, though. It’s distracting because it’s annoying and unnatural. Finally, I’m discovering that I have a preference for more subtle detail. I like good detail retrieval and hearing what a recording has to offer, but I prefer what many would consider relaxed and subtle rather than aggressive or detail-forward. To my ear, more subtle detail-retrieval sounds more realistic and natural than aggressive, detail-forwardness. There is a balance here, though, because detail retrieval can get too relaxed and that can sound unnatural, as well, or simply leave out important aspects of the recording. Readers should keep these hearing quirks and preferences in mind as they read my descriptions of sound.

FEATURES & BUILD

The Panda is a Bluetooth headset with built-in THX amplification. It includes all the latest fancy BT specs and ran on LDAC off my Galaxy Note 8 smartphone without issue. It’s light and fits snuggly without feeling tight. In fact, I could wear it around for extended time periods without many comfort issues. If I had one complaint on fit it would be the earcups aren’t very big and my average sized ears weren’t always completely enclosed. There were times where I could feel my earlobe slip a bit underneath the earpad on the inside, but there was enough room for it in there that I would forget about that happening until I took them off and they gently flopped my ear. They also feel reasonably rugged in their construction. It’s mostly plastic but still feels solid and will likely survive several drops (no pun intended!) or living in a gym bag.

Sound isolation is also good. For many OTG applications it will be reasonable. I was able to use it with an electric lawn mower and not hear the mower very much. A gas mower might be a bit of a problem, though. An airplane may also be too loud. However, walks, most bus rides, general out-and-about-ness, the Panda should do a reasonably good job of blocking the world out and holding your music in.

I didn’t have any issues with battery life. I didn’t time it, but Drop’s claimed battery life feels realistic. They also do a good job of holding their charge. I let them sit for about 10 days for a stretch and picked them up again and at least according to my phone, their charge hadn’t decreased at all.

Pairing was also easy to figure out without having to look up instructions. Some Bluetooth devices need a certain set of steps. This one was easy, just hold the button down until it blinks at you rapidly and then tell your phone to find it. Done.

A fun bonus is the power on/off sounds sound like old Nintendo game sound effects. This is not an important or necessary feature but makes me chuckle every time.

There is an app for updating and with EQ features kinda-sorta found here: https://www.sonarworks.com/soundid/drop/panda-headphones

It’s not really a phone app, at least initially. On that website is an app to download a firmware updater for the Panda. It is downloaded to a Mac or Windows computer. I downloaded this app to install it. The install went fine, except Windows Defender (I’m running Win 10) didn’t want it to run. After 2 rounds of telling Windows I was sure I wanted to install it, it did so. However, when I plugged in the Panda via USB-C to update it, the update hung on this screen:

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for several minutes. I closed that screen and restarted the Drop app. The app immediately recognized the Panda was still plugged in, informed me an update was available, and asked if I wanted to update. I said yes. The app then launched the update for about 5 seconds, then quit and said “Update not finish [sic]. Try Again?” I clicked try again and it finally ran the complete update. Once that’s done, the SoundID app, which can be downloaded at the Google or Apple app stores, will work with the Panda and any future firmware updates can be handled through it – the downloadable Windows/Mac updater is a one-and-done process.

But we’re not done yet. Because now you must download the SoundID app and if you don’t have an account create one and then navigate a list of possible headphones the SoundID folks have programmed things for and then go through the process of connecting your headphones to the app itself instead of just to your phone and cross your fingers to hope it works but for me it didn’t and I had to restart my phone and that didn’t help and then I had to unpair the Panda from my phone and re-pair it and then relaunch the SoundID app and tell it to connect to the Pandas again and then it finally did and [DEEP BREATH]…ok, yes, sorry English teachers for the epic run-on. I did it on purpose. Because the process of getting this update done, SoundID app installed, and then get that app to talk to the Panda was a pain in the [pick your favorite body part for things to be a pain in], and was a frustrating slog. Once everything is talking to everything else, you still have to go through a setup program within SoundID to get your sound signature preferences set up. I set it up and tried it with the Panda. It made an audible difference, which I will report on further when I talk about…



SOUND

This sound review was done almost exclusively using LDAC Bluetooth connection between the Panda and my Galaxy smartphone or Cayin N6ii DAP, mostly using Spotify, but briefly using the Cayin’s stock player with local FLACs. I did this because I figured wireless will be the most likely use case and the reason that someone is buying this headphone, so let’s evaluate it as it’s likely to be used.

Sound Signature – With Stock Tuning

In a departure from most wireless headphones $400 and less, the Panda tuning is more neutral in its tuning. The bass isn’t nearly as elevated to the point of boom as some more mainstream tuned wireless pieces. There might be the shallowest of v signatures to it, but it’s not prominent. The bass has decent extension and the treble is sparkly without seeming forward or emphasized. The mids are nicely present too, not pushed to the background like many headphones of this type.

When I first put on the Pandas I had just finished reviewing a number of really high-end headgear pieces like the Audeze LCD-24, Abyss Diana Phi, HiFiMan HE1000V2,…well, you get the idea. Putting on a $400 wireless piece was a changeup. However, one thing I can say for the Panda is I didn’t cringe as hard as I thought I would. After listening for a few minutes, I was struck by the pleasantly realistic timbre in the mids and treble. For the most part, that mid and treble timbre continued to impress me with future listening sessions, too. However, if a recording is already sibilant, the Panda doesn’t do much for it and probably adds a little bit of its own. This added sibilance is less than I’m used to for THX amps, but it’s also not zero. The resolution is also good with some of my initial notes also noting the mid-bass detail. No, it’s not going to show you all the warts in your music, but it’s also not going to leave out too much to enjoy.

Now, I’m a basshead and most of the time there was enough bass for me. It wouldn’t be the first piece I reach for if I really wanted to rumble while on the go, but it’s good reasonably good extension and enough bass presence to satisfy most.

Where the Bluetooth nature really comes out is with the spatial presentation. There isn’t much in the way of staging with a narrow and flat stage, 3-blob imaging, and a general in-the-head presentation. However, this is common for the product type and I mention it only as a sonic aspect Drop did not solve with this product.

With SoundID EQ Enabled

OK…BIG waving flag here…I’m about to talk about a preference-based EQ…YMMV!

The SoundID setup program plays about 8 different clips with different EQ presents in them and asks you select whether you prefer clip A, clip B, or can’t tell a difference. It then puts all your selections through an algorithm and spits out an EQ profile supposedly optimized to your preferences for the headphone you’re using. My preferences for the Panda gave a slight boost to the subbass (surprise! Lol), smoothed out the transition from bass to midbass, brought up the upper mids just a hair, and perhaps most noticeably widened the soundstage and filled in the spaces between center, and left and right, making the spatial presentation just a bit less 3-blob-y. Less 3-blob-y though, and still very much with an in-the-head presentation, just slightly bigger and more laterally coherent.

Overall clarity improved, the sound was overall just a hair less veiled than the stock tuning. However, even thought the bass-to-mid transition smoothed out from a frequency-response perspective, a bit of grain was added in the same range. This grain was more detectable with male vocalists than female vocalists. I first noticed it when I enabled the EQ and “The Distance” by Cake came on in my shuffle. Turn off the EQ and the grain went away, but the soundstage narrowed and became more 3-blob-y. With female vocals the the EQ could introduce a hint of shout that was not there without the EQ, probably from that lift of the upper mids. How did that get in there? Well, I selected the distorted guitars test track in the SoundID setup thinking “I like to rock!”. Had I picked a vocal based test track, my own mileage very well could have varied. So, it’s a tradeoff. The EQ makes a difference, but it isn’t a cure-all. Some things improve, some things don’t.



COMPARISON WITH OTHER HEADPHONES

I have two points of comparison for the Panda. I’ll comment on one below. First, the other headphone I have to compare to in a similar product category is the Sony WH-1000XM3, which costs about $350 and includes amazing active noise cancelling. Feature-wise the Sony has more controls on the headset itself, but most of them are touch controls where the Panda has a physical button. Truthfully, I don’t like either can’s control implementation and end up controlling everything on my phone. Physical comfort is pretty even although I thought the XM3 got a little bit warmer and started the ear sweat a little earlier…although they both did it. Both models also have battery life that is among the best in class.

FWIW, I had to update the firmware on my XM3 to also do a fair comparison here and check that my statements about dropping connection quality when EQ is active still apply (they do). It took about 35 minutes to do that update. It worked the first time, but was still slow and tedious. So neither the XM3 or the Panda gets high marks from me on the ergonomics of app side.

Sonically I’ll compare the stock tunings. The SoundID process is a bit of pain, tbh, and the results are…eh. The Sony comes with an app that has extensive EQ options, but that also drops the Bluetooth connection quality, so let’s compare the stock tunings with the best connection type. The XM3’s tuning is a bit closer to the mainstream with a definitely elevated bass shelf. Its treble isn’t necessarily recessed but is rolled off a bit and clearly tuned to avoid ear-fatigue over long listening sessions. That decision is defensible as it’s a headphone designed to make music a listenable experience on 12-hour flights and the like. The Panda’s tuning is more audiophile neutral. The Panda also has slightly more detail throughout the frequency range, I emphasize slightly, though. The timbre of the Panda is also a touch more natural than the XM3. Same here, the difference in timbre is a very slight advantage to the Panda. The XM3 also hits harder in the bass than the Panda, which can be more engaging for some music genres – namely mainstream ones. Both cans are essentially dead even in their ability to reproduce space, which means not well. It’s a very flat, narrow stage with an in-the-head feel either way.

Unfortunately, I have not heard the Sony XM4 and understand that they tuned that one even more mainstream with a more aggressive bass shelf. I can’t confirm that, but since the XM4 is the latest model it might change what I’m about to say…

If I didn’t already own the XM3 and had both it and the Drop Panda on loan to pick one…which would it be? XM3. Yes, the Panda sounds just a wink better in detail retrieval and timbre and has a tuning which probably means it’s more technically accurate. That might be all some audiophiles need and I will not give anyone grief over that decision. For me it comes down to 1) I like bass and the Sony delivers in the low end in important ways the Panda does not and 2) the Sony is the better value. On point 2, the XM3 is only slightly off the sound quality pace set by Panda in the mids and treble. The difference between the two is audible but I’ve heard bigger sound changes between DACs and amps that are close to each other in price. The XM3 also has more features, the big one being world class ANC. The presence of that ANC makes it more useful in a wider range of mobile situations than the Panda. When you throw in that it costs $50 less, it becomes an easy decision for me.

The other point of comparison I can make is in a bit different category…sorta. My workout setup is a Radsone ES100 bluetooth dac/amp and V-MODA Crossfade M-100 headphone with WC Wicked XL ear pads (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DR57HM8/). The pads give both a big sonic and comfort upgrade to the stock M-100. The M-100 is a fairly easy-driving closed-back and these pads make it isolate pretty well, too. Crunching the numbers here, the M-100 sells for $250. The ES100 mk 2 is $90 on Amazon as of this writing, normally about $100. The pads are $20. A short, 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable (I use a 12” Cable Creations) goes for under $10. We’re looking at $380 for the package. I clip the ES100 to my shirt collar and off I go. The M-100 stays on my head exceptionally well, even when laying on a horizontal bench and while sweating. I don’t hear much of the outside world, and no one has ever told me to turn my music down because they could hear it…or maybe I just look unapproachable. Either way, the reason I always leaned that way instead of using my XM3’s was because the M-100 stayed on better in active situations and this setup sounds better. With the WC XL pads, the M-100 is a little less mid-forward and has a warmer signature than stock and while it’s not going to compete with my desktop gear in resolution, it’s no slouch. I didn’t try the Panda in a full gym workout because I don’t own it and didn’t want to sweat that much on it (you’re welcome, owner). But, it will slide off my head backward if lying horizontally. The ergonomic drawbacks of the ES100 + M-100 setup are that a wire is still required to go from the ES100 to the M-100. It’s also an overall more complicated setup as it requires a total of 4 pieces – phone/dap/tablet, BT dac/amp, wire, headphone – as opposed to just 2 for the Panda – phone/dap/tablet and headphone. However, the performance is quite good.

Again comparing the stock tunings, the ES100 + M-100 is warmer, bassier, has more thump and rumble in the low end, and a generally smoother presentation throughout the frequency spectrum. The Panda sounds more crisp and more forward in the mids and treble. The treble especially sounds a bit more shimmery than the ES100 + M-100. Despite this crispness, the ES100 + M-100 was more resolving. It didn’t initially come across that way because it sounded smoother overall but it was pulling out more room reverb, resolving string plucks a little more clearly, etc. The ES100 + M-100 also had a bigger, wider soundstage and more coherent lateral imaging. It was far less 3-blob-y than Panda. The ES100 + M-100 still can’t quite lick that in-the-head feel, but it’s less than feeling from Panda. Still, the overall technical performance gap here is slight and I can’t fault anyone for preferring Panda because of the more neutral signature or liking that crisper presentation. Still, anyone looking around in this price category should know what the options are.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Panda is still a good product. If the goal is straight up to find the best sound quality for a wireless headphone under $500 and it’s not going to be used in contexts with noisy backgrounds, here it is. In my personal opinion the value isn’t great at $399. I suspect that the utility of the Panda decreases dramatically if you want to listen to music on planes, while mowing the lawn, or doing other activities with noisy backgrounds. The other Bluetooth cans out there in the price range that have ANC still sound pretty good too, and often represent a more complete overall value package. However, I’ve seen used models listed in the $250 price range and there it starts to make a lot more sense. Despite my reservations on the overall value, there were times the Panda brought me music that I really appreciated. During my move with all my other sound gear boxed up and strewn about in different rooms and sometimes in different houses, it was nice to grab a lawn chair, set it up on the deck of the new house, grab the Pandas, and sneak in a few songs at reasonably good quality. So, a product like the Panda absolutely has its place. It will be a question of what your use cases are and what the right price is for you.

Thanks once again for reading, all. Enjoy the music!
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project86

Headphoneus Supremus
Pros: Excellent sound whether used wired or via Bluetooth, looks great in stealth black, battery performance, controls feel intuitive (but that's personal preference)
Cons: Prototype needed more padding on the headband, and more room to expand for large heads (both being addressed on the production model), clamping force is tight by necessity, no ANC or DSP (though that could change down the road)
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Long story short: Oppo Digital used to be a player in the audio market. They had some of the best universal Disc spinners around, which were very highly regarded both for their audio and video performance. They also had an excellent line of planar magnetic headphones - the most popular of which seemed to be the PM-3 ($399).

It's been nearly 2 years since Oppo left the market, and many of us still miss their contributions. I regularly use the Oppo UDP-205 player (with ModWright upgrades, though the original was great too) and wish I had purchased a few more when I had the chance (second hand pricing has skyrocketed). But the Oppo product I arguably see most demand for is the PM-3. It occupied a relatively niche spot - a great sounding, portable, planar magnetic design which is still fairly appropriate for home use. Not a ton of competitors in that category.

Drop (formerly MassDrop if that name is more familiar) made a deal to purchase some of Oppo's intellectual property, and has put it to good use with the new Panda headphones. It takes the beloved PM-3 and augments the design with wireless capabilities, whilst maintaining the same $399 asking price. On paper, that sounds like a winning combination right?

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As with any headphone design, implementation is key. Transforming a traditional wired headphone into a wired design offers many opportunities to screw things up, but fortunately Drop did a great job here. They not only kept the wonderful PM-3 sound signature but actually improved it to a small degree, which is not something I expected.

In order to make this happen, Drop uses built-in discrete amplification with THX AAA technology. This drives the headphone directly - no intermediate sound shaping through digital signal processing or noise cancellation, which are usually found in this sort of headphone. That means excellent battery life (30 hours or longer) and no major change in sound when switching to passive mode using the included headphone cable. There are two microphones on board but so far they are only for use with phone calls. Drop has toyed with the idea of later adding some sort of ANC and/or DSP for user adjustable EQ, but that's all speculative at this point. Just know that for now, what Panda offers is a direct-to-driver wireless experience that mirrors what we get when driving it via quality (external/wired) amplification.

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Bluetooth capabilities are fairly comprehensive: I could be forgetting a few, but so far I recall basic SBC plus AAC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, and LDAC (although LDAC was not yet implemented in the firmware on my review prototype). I don't always care about having so many options but with a headphone of this caliber, the improvement from one codec to the next is more noticeable. I mostly listened with aptX HD and was very satisfied with what I heard. LDAC - at the highest 990kbps setting - has potential to sound even better, so I'm glad it is present here even if I could not test it out for myself.

Controls are handled via 4-way rocker which also does push-to-click. It's really low profile and I initially had trouble finding it while wearing the headphones. Eventually I got used to it, and actually quite like it now. I find it simple and intuitive but your mileage may vary, and I know some people may prefer side mounted touch-controls or other solutions. Charging is accomplished via USB C and going from empty to full supposedly takes around 2 hours. Note that I've heard talk about connecting Panda directly to a phone or other device via USB, which would be a handy option to have, but I never actually tried it myself. Not sure if that will end up being a feature in the production model or not.

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Panda relies on strong passive isolation to account for its lack of noise cancellation. That means a fairly strong clamping force - no way around that if isolation is the goal. Combined with the pads which don't quite fully envelope my ears, I find the Panda less comfortable than larger at-home models like the HD6XX or K7XX. That's sort of the nature of these things though, and I felt pretty much the same way about the original PM-3. The prototype model caused a bit of a "hot spot" on the crown of my head due to a lack of padding, and Drop says they are working on improving that aspect. They are also adding a bit more extension (1 or 2 clicks) as some of us with big heads are pushing the limit for the prototype.

Now, before you go assuming this is merely a regurgitated PM-3 with some electronics stuffed in the cups, take a look at pics and see how different Panda looks compared to the original Oppo. The general appearance is very similar but when you get down to details you'll see substantial redesigns at every turn. Which is logical - it's not like Drop could just take over production with a few minor tweaks, as PM-3 hasn't been produced in several years. They basically had to built it from the ground up, using PM-3 as a target and working in all their extras without compromising anything. And I'd say the mission was a success.

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As for sound, well, I found the Panda to be quite similar to the PM-3 I had a while back. That means somewhat U-shaped signature, though generally neutral enough to not sound overly colored. Bass impact is generous but not overwhelming by any means, and seems improved over the PM-3 which at times felt just a little muddy. The somewhat forward lower treble keeps things interesting and is followed by a subtle roll-off in the higher frequencies which makes the sound smooth and non-fatiguing. Imaging is pricise, with a somewhat focused soundstage that is accurate if not all that massive... again, very similar to the original Oppo design.

The end result is a slight improvement over the PM-3, both at the top and the bottom of the spectrum, without losing any of the fundamental charm so many people loved. Disregarding any of the wireless aspects and just using this as a traditional wired headphone, it seems worthwhile for the asking price. I had a blast using it in a ridiculously mismatched system featuring Pass Labs amplification and a McIntosh CD player/DAC, though it also sounded great from my "quad-DAC" equipped LG phone. True, the market has moved on since the PM-3 originally sold for $399, but I'm not aware of any other headphone that came along and filled that particular gap. Used PM-3 models still command a hefty price on the second-hand market so based on that alone, the Panda looks pretty appealing. Granted the bundled cable is rather short for home use but that can be remedied fairly easily.

The part that makes Panda outstanding is when I unplug and walk away from the big system whilst maintaining the same general sonic performance via aptX HD. Between this and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless, I'm enjoying cable-free listening on a level I never imagined just a year ago. I'm not even really the target market for this thing as I mainly listen at home, but even I am excited to see the Panda launch - I suspect it will be among Drop's biggest projects to date, right up there with HD6XX and K7XX.

Since this whole thing is based on a few weeks of use with a prototype Panda, I will have to stop short of going further in-depth in terms of comparisons etc. I guess the bottom line for me is this - I'm not much of a portable user, and even I want to buy the Panda. That's about the best real-world praise a product can earn. Panda currently has just over 2 weeks left on the Indiegogo campaign (which has proven to be wildly successful) so take a look and give it serious consideration if you may have use for such a device.
R
russmarch
Can you tell me what the material for the cups is or the earpiece. Is it leather, or memory foam or?
project86
project86
Feels like quality synthetic leather, doesn't bother my ears the way some others do. Underneath, some type of fairly dense foam, not sure if memory or not though.
VeeAndBobby
VeeAndBobby
I received my Panda early this month. I found the wireless sound quality to be better than I expected. I used it with my Sony NW-WM1A Walkman. Using either AptX HD or LDAC, I felt the sound quality was as good or better than connecting with a wire. LDAC sounded slightly better than AptX HD. Compared to my Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless noise-cancelling headphones, the Panda has better sound but poorer comfort. I used to have a B&W PX-7, and the Panda certainly has better sounding wireless performance than the PX-7. The problem with the Panda is the comfort. I didn't want to use it for more than about 30 minutes.

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