Up for review today is the new JM Audio (JMA) XTC (ecstasy?) Open back (XTC-O) - I believe I am one of the first people to receive these. Please keep in mind I bought these with my own money at full price and received nothing in exchange for this review (all of these opinions are my own, sorry, not sorry.) This is the limited Black color, other color options can be found at JMAudioEditions.com
along with the closed-back version - which has some great looking wood earcups. According to JMA, they are at an introductory price right now to let people (like me) get the chance to listen to them since this is JM Audio's first non-limited in-house release. Spoiler alert for those of you who don't want to read my ramblings below: These are some of the best headphones I've ever heard - go buy a pair before the cat's out of the bag and the price rises. These are true Giant Killers (yeah, I hate that term too, but it applies here.)
So what makes these different from the mainstream audio companies? JMA claims they spent a year trying to find the best-sounding drivers - after listening to the XTC-O, I believe it. JMA also has proprietary technology using their "patent pending fractal fiberglass mesh and porous mesh to expand the perceived sound stage and depth while maintaining integrity of the signal without dampening or attenuating any one frequency." In layman's terms, their tech enhances the soundstage. Also, they obsess over having everything in phase and each XTC goes through a barrage of tests to ensure you're getting the best possible end product.
These are made in the USA and shipped from JMA's HQ in New York. They will also tune each headphone to whatever sound profile you're looking for, so a much bassier version or more detailed version are possible as well. Contact JMA and let them know what you want - this review is based on the version they built for me after some back and forth discussion (I'm not sure what tune mine is, but definitely not the "Club" sound version.) Each headphone also comes with a one year warranty and from what I've seen, JMA will retune a headphone for you if you don't like the sound.
My first impression after picking the XTC-O up out of the box was how insanely light they were (feels right around 400g). Compared to my RAD-0 (600g), these are very lightweight, and also have a more comfortable headband with good clamping pressure and comfortable earpads. There are no hotspots or eardrum pressure caused by the headband or earcups. The earcups have a beautiful black grill on them that avoids ZMFs gaudy designs while still providing excellent structural integrity. The black gloss earcups look great and feel like premium quality as well.
The XLR4 cable (other terminations are available - 3.5 is standard) that came with mine works beautifully and my only complaint there is that it is slightly microphonic when moving my head. The carrying case was a pelican-style case that will protect the headphones from just about anything. Multiple other earpads were included as well to allow for different sound signatures, but the stock ones work beautifully so the other ones may just sit in the case. There are a ton of pad options that you can order with the XTC as well that will change up the sound signature including fuzzy ones!
Maybe you're thinking to yourself, wow, all of that sounds great, but I only have a potato to power these with, can my potato-amp(tm) run these? The XTC-O are VERY easy-to-drive headphones - literally, they were at listening volume at 1/100 on my Burson Conductor 3XP using balanced XLR-4 with High Gain (the default - RAD-0 were 20.) On low gain, they sit at 45/100 for comfortable listening volume while the RAD-0 is around 65/100. I don't have an unbalanced cable to test how they drive, but I assume it requires more power (side note: I tested my GHJM with XLR4 and 6.3mm and the same volume level was achieved at 40 on XLR4 and 60 on 6.3mm with low gain - assume the XTC are similar).
While I’ve owned a lot of high-end headphones, including the Meze Empyrean, Hifiman HE-1000 v2 (HEKv2,) and Focal Utopia 2020, that doesn’t mean that I can pick apart specific frequencies without instrumentation (feel free to send me things to take measurements with.) On the plus side, neither can most other people, and it makes for a boring read, so below are MY impressions on the sound – deal with it, or go write your own review (I don't get paid to do this and it is a massive time suck.) I will list the songs I use to test certain aspects of headphones and you can find my Tidal headphone test tracks playlist in my sig if you want to try your own headphones to compare. Also, I don’t have an accurate way to differentiate between mids and highs (most people don’t - can you really tell when vocals cross over 2000 Hz without measurements?), so I prefer to list specific instruments and vocals and let you judge.
I am not someone who enjoys having his brains scrambled by insane bass, and these are not tuned to be the headphones for you if you are (JMA WILL tune them for you so that your brain looks like an omelet if you'd like, or try the JMA XTC Closed (XTC-C) or the Kennerton Gjallarhorn GH 50 JM Edition v2 (GHJM), or the Symphonium Meteor for that.) That said, I do like good, clean, impactful bass representation - whether it's drums, bass guitar, or sub-synth. The XTC-O has without a doubt THE BEST bass representation I've ever heard - maybe even perfect. It has crisp, detailed bass that is superior to any of the reference headphones I've listened to (Utopia, HEKv2) without being TOO much - like some basshead headphones (looking at you GHJM with bass plugs out.) The bass is still extremely full and registers some sounds that my RAD-0 cannot reproduce. Also, the bass manages to not overwhelm the mids and highs, which still come through beautifully - no clue how JMA pulled that off, but bravo.
I always start a bass test with The Knife's "Silent Shout." This song is easily the fastest way to test whether the bass is good on a set of headphones - The Utopia, and to a lesser extent, the HE-1000 v2 for instance, are very bass-light on this song. The XTC-O has an excellent presentation of the two intro bass drums without getting bloated or overwhelming. The other song I typically use to test bass is David Guetta's "I'm Good (Blue)." The intro bass drum is full and clean and when the sub-bass comes in with so much reverb that I swear I stopped breathing. Yet, it doesn't take things too far like some other bassier headphones (once again, JMA sells those options if that's your thing.) To conclude, the XTC-O have the best sounding lows I've ever heard in a headphone.
Instruments and vocals:
The soundstage is medium-large - sort of like being in a small performance hall without the terrible school-hallway echo that headphones like the Sennheiser HD8XX have. There is a sense of a large soundstage, but the vocals and instruments still come in like you're standing next to the performers. I have more song comparisons below than normal because these headphones deserve more listening than most:
Starting off with mids, Thousand Foot Krutch's "I See Red" has fantastic detail on the guitars with beautiful reverberation and detail and the same can be said for the vocals when they come in - everything has excellent balance and clarity. This is true for Paradise Fears "Battle Scars" - there is no overwhelming low-end and the instruments and vocals are excellently presented. Ravenscode's "Be The Same" can have a really harsh transition at 0:35 when the distorted guitars come in, but the XTC-O manages to make that transition with no unnecessary harshness and without drowning out the drums or vocals. The Dirty Heads "Sound of Change" has a very challenging transition at 0:35 that a lot of headphones struggle with as they transition from vocals to vocals with drums and guitars, but the XTC-O manages to perform it beautifully without any harshness or distortion and all without drowning out any of the guitars or synths in the background. Seriously, these have fantastic mids to go with the top-notch lows.
Moving to the highs, I do have to point out that they do have slightly muted highs compared to the RAD-0 (which are considered perfectly tuned highs by most reviewers). That may be my fault because I complained that the GHJM had harsh highs, so JMA may have tuned them down for me. I wouldn't say that any part is missing and they do avoid all harshness in the upper frequencies of vocals and instruments. An example of this is Written By Wolves' "Elastic Heart" which can have the tendency to have a very high-pitched and annoying noise (high-hat?) in the background which is most evident at 1:08 - the XTC-O manages to display that sound without it being annoying. That said, the RAD-0 portrays that high-pitched sound more clearly while also preventing any harshness from the sound (to be clear, this is an insane level of nitpick, but if I'm going to say that these compete with $3,000+ headphones, I'm going to nitpick). The vocals and guitars still come through beautifully and the lows don't drown out any part of the mids and highs in this song.
Michele McLaughlin's "At the Ivy Gate" shows how wonderfully the XTC-O represents piano - it literally feels like I'm sitting in the room with her as she plays and every note comes across with excellent detail and clarity, even the high notes. Mariana's Trench's "Astoria" is a great example of Josh Ramsey's fantastic voice, and the entire intro is about as high as you can expect vocals to ever go (I saw this song live in 2016.) Starting at 2:20, the XTC-O manages to do a fantastic presentation of all of the notes, but compared to the RAD-0, the guitars do overwhelm the vocals a tad on this song - more than the RAD-0 does in the same section. Surprisingly, after listening to these headphones back to back, the RAD-0 feels flatter in the same section - it's missing parts in the mids that the XTC-O presents and the RAD-0 sounds a little harsher and less "warm." This is the same problem I had with the bass on the RAD-0 - it feels like parts of the song are missing, which I never would have noticed unless I was listening to both.
After comparing these two headphones back to back (I have both on my desk, so a back-to-back comparison is easy) I honestly think the XTC-O is my favorite of the two (it has the fuller sound) - I never thought I'd say that the RAD-0 was the harsher and thinner sounding headphone in a comparison with ANYTHING since it was my previous favorite headphone. Crap - now JMA just needs to make headphones as pretty as the RAD-0 haha. I may need to get the XTC-C now.
I've already covered a pretty good comparison between the XTC-O and RAD-0 above because it was easy to swap the XLR4 back and forth and listen to songs back to back between the XTC-O and RAD-0. I can't do that with the other headphones I've owned, all I can do is provide from memory (unless you feel like sending me headphones to compare.) To give you an idea of what I've owned on my quest to find the best headphones, I traded my DROP Focal Elex for Meze Empyreans, which had too much bass with the leather earpads and a thinner overall sound with the velour pads. So, I traded them for the Focal Utopia 2020, which does have fantastic speed and detail but is a VERY neutral sound that I never liked that much. So, I picked up the Hifiman HE-1000 v2 (yeah, I was following Crinnacle's rankings for awhile, he and I have VERY different ideas of good sound,) and those have similar detail to the Utopia, but with a better low-end. Lastly, I sold those when I got my RAD-0s because the RAD-0s have an even better low-end with a little less detail, but fantastic mids and highs that are a great "fun" sound (more V-shaped I guess.)
Do the XTC-O have the detail and speed of the Focal Utopia on the highs and mids? Nope, they're not made with $1k worth of Beryllium - but it's close, with a more fun/better low-end. Do they match the RAD-0s highs? It's really close, but not quite, yet they present details in the bass and mids that the RAD-0 doesn't even know are there while providing an overall more-full sound. Are they the bass cannons that the Gjallarhorn GH50s are? Nope, they have less bass, but it is much cleaner, tighter, and more well-represented without losing the bass like the RAD-0 or the HEKv2 and Utopia. They also beat the GH50 in the mids and highs. These are the best all-around headphone I've ever listened to - there, I said it. Good job JMA.
These are not your next neutral reference headphone with which to critically listen to every string in Mozart's Violin Concerto
No 3 while sipping your Pappy Van Winkle 23- those headphones will cost $5k+ (so will the Pappy.) The XTC-O is the headphone to listen to rock, EDM, rap, piano - and yes, even classical strings, for enjoyment and detail and beautifully represented bass. These are my favorite headphones ever. Please keep in mind that mine are pretty heavily modified by JMA to my tastes, so you may have to ask for the Wolfhawk tuning - or, get them tuned to your own preferences. Also, a non-microphonic cable would be nice, but at least the quality/sound from the cable is excellent.
Yeah, yeah - I get it. I sound like a fan-boy, but I actually had several issues with JMAs modified Kennerton Gjallarhorn (that's more the fault of Kennerton's driver design than JMA though.) JMA has managed to put amazing TOTL drivers into lightweight headphones and offer them for an insane price. The XTC-O manages to compete with some of the best headphones on the market for a FRACTION of the price, but I doubt they'll stay at this price - we're looking at the next Audeze-like startup. Grab a pair before they sell out or increase in price.
You can buy these here: https://www.jmaudioeditions.com/product-page/new-inventory-xtc
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