KENNERTON - VALI
The Zealously Musical Dynamic Open Back
(8.16.16 updates in purple with production unit)
Intro:For some reason I find my self always curious about the headphones and gear that seem relatively new, not popular, upcoming, or developing. When I read of the Kennerton Odin I was very curious of it, even considering selling gear for it in hopes of it becoming available for purchase. I kept missing the production runs and after enthusiastically expressing my desire to hear a pair Kennerton Team obliged to my request, but could only send the Vali. I was very excited to hear the Vali. Even though I would have, at the time, preferred to hear the Odin, this was a chance to hear the house sound of what is an exotic brand to a lot of us in the United states. It is no risk and this time if I didn’t like it I could just pass it along to the next person on the tour I initiated instead of having to painfully lower the price on a headphone I regret taking the risk on. The truth is though that if I didn’t like the Vali I wouldn’t have felt comfortable passing it along on a tour for a bash fest. So here I am writing a review about a headphone that I want to gush about but honestly, like most of my reviews I plan on simply laying out the aspects of the headphone in hopes that you can determine if it is for you or not. From jump I will just say that I am impressed!
I have no ulterior motives, Kennerton is not paying me for a review(nor have I ever been paid since I am not really any special reviewer), I have no ties, nor do I sell their products or have been promised a discount or any of the likes for my efforts.
Specs:Price: 990.00 Usd
Driver Unit: 50 mm
Frequency Response: 10-28000 Hz
Sensitivity: 100 dB
Impedance: 32 Ohm
Maximum Input Power: 500 mW
Cord length: 2 m detachable 4-pin mini XLR OFC cable (3.5 mm)
Design:Let’s see what their website says about them.
“ With Kennerton‘s Vali, we succesfully achieved a lively, natural sound, that finely strikes in the balance of neither being too dark and congested, nor overly bright and sharp. Its sound signature is wide and open, yet clear and powerful, befitting the best qualities from a dynamic headphones.”
I mostly concur
“Vali is equipped with unique 50mm drivers using ultra-lightweight paper composite diaphragms that are exclusively designed with award-winning manufacturer, Peerless® by Tymphany. They offer great sensitivity, while reducing unwanted resonance and distortion. Its audio performance is then carefully tuned by our Russian engineers to ensure that nothing falls below excellence.
The diaphragm is specially designed and made of a composite paper cone shielded in multi-layered laminated film. Composite paper has been well known and widely used in speaker manufacturing because of the following reasons which you can also expect from Kennerton’s Vali.
• Low mass: Increases the response time to an incoming signal, while minimising the decay time. The result is a rich and emotional sound.
• High internal damping: Minimum, almost zero additional resonances produced. The result is a smooth and vivid presentation.
• Excellent stiffness: Allows the cone to oscillate without bending. The result is a much reduced distortion.
The mulit-layered laminated film further reduces the distortion by allowing the cone to move easily in perfect piston motion”
“The materials we selected for Vali are very specific. The cups are made from naturally treated exotic Peruvian Walnut. Those beautiful wood grains are complemented by a strong yet lightweight structure made of aviation-grade aluminium and steel. To prevent any unwanted resonance, the honeycomb grille is made of cast zinc alloy which is acoustically inert.
Designed to reduce long listening fatigue, Vali has patented 3D adjustable headband, made of genuine lambskin leather, and coupled with large, soft leather earpads to provide a supportive and comfortable fit. High quality detachable 4-pin mini XLR cable with OFC USSR-military use litz wire further ensures that clear, undistorted audio signal from the headphones will be dutifully delivered.”
The muscularly hulking body of the Vali is of the built-to-last construction; weighing in at a solid 550grams of non-plastic mass. There are a lot of details in its rustic design that really reveals the pride of craftsmanship that went into making these headphones. The cups are held in place by metal yolks and have a large sliver knob that is used to secure the what position you find most suitable for a good fit. Both the headband and the headband strap are made of thin but genuine leather straps.
The ear pads are perforated and slightly angled with a design that is very much responsible for the tuning of the headset. The pads are easy attached via a very smooth baffle that allows effortless pad replacement.
The cable has a sort of stiff nylon like sleeving around it which is terminated in 1/8th inch and an accompanied by a 6.35mm adapter. Any Audeze or ZMF cable will work fine with these headphones so picking a suitable cable will be a synch.
Comfort:Some people, unlike myself, have a tough time with the weight of headphones like Audeze, the older HiFiMans, now the Vali. As much as I particularly am not bothered at all by the likes, the Vali is undeniably part of the same camp. During the time of this review the Cocobolo ZMF Omni was the heaviest headphones in my stable and these are heavier and a little less comfortable. In order to get a secure fit you may have to get used to the adjustment mechanisms which may require a little patience.
As you can see in the pictures above the the cups are fixed to the yolks with joints that allow them to swing up and down. The large knob on the riser is for tightening in place the headphones extension as well as the conforming swiveled position. I recommend finding a really good fit and tightening that knob to prevent the headphones from slipping loose from the sliders. Once worn, the weight seems evenly distributed with a reassuringly good clamp. The ear cavity is deep but not necessarily spacious. I swapped to some ZMF cowhide pads and the comfort was improved but at the expense of way too much bass… even for me.
These headphones are very easy to drive. It doesn’t take much to make them come alive. The bass is decently tight on it’s own but the wrong impedance of the gear chosen to amplify it can make the bass a little muddy. On my Trafomatic Head 2 the bass is actually more solid than on the Cayin iHA-6 (I reviewed it here) but the more organic tuning of the TH2 makes pairing the full sounding Vali with the Cayin combination better for the most part. The TH2 (another risk I took that paid off) is very engaging but using the Kennerton Vali in the balanced socket of that iHA-6 made them almost as lively but better balanced since Cayin gear is neutral yet slightly bright in sound. My Nuprime HPA-9 even further enhances its sound signature which is a bit much for me and yet again the balanced jack of the Cayin iHA-6 is more punchy yet even cleaner. The iHA-6 brings out more details than the Nuprime as well. I initially preferred the Nuprime 9 for the Vali when single ended but further comparing revealed the iHA-6 to be best.
The Metrum Musette is very much like the Nuprime HPA-9 in tuning. Full, clean, not too fast, musical and has some good depth, yet it warmed the lower midrange up too much and brought them even closer which made it overbearing for me. The Nuprime 9’ actually pushes the vocals back positionally and doesn’t give much air, neither does the musette. So as you can see the pairing is less ideal for this headphone but better for my HD800S.
A few songs:
Lavender Diamond - “Dragonfly”
I love the way this lady's voice sounds. The presence of her voice is so soothing and the Vali pleasantly brings out the body of her delivery. Since her voice is so pure it sounds beautiful through the Vali even with it's hints of flattery. The bass line that pulses throughout the background in a unique arpeggiated rhythm cuts through the mix without touching that wonderful tone of her voice. The piano is resonating with a richness that few other headphones portray. There is a clarity of this fullness that is without shrillness and grain. Sweet.. I love it!
Ben Harper - “Picture of Jesus”
Ben’s voice is very present, full and forward with some extra reverb to his singing. Positionally the background singers performing their african folk harmonies are rightfully behind him and not blended. There is great dimension to Bens voice on that song but it sounds a little too thick at times. A minor eq and trim from 200hz-500hz helped with the musette but none was required with the iDAC-6. This song has not much in the way of instruments as the theme of male vocals really are at play here. On this song in particular I notice more boxiness due to the deep tones of men singing and how the Vali portrayed it.
Shigeto - “Miss U”
The bass isn’t the deepest I have heard but it is thoroughly enjoyable. If you are into EDM and like smooth music this may be up your alley. The Vali takes an IV line of each pluck, thwack, and hit of percussion and sticks it in the vein of your neck. If you like drums it is impossible to deny the Vali’s dynamics and nimbleness. Couple that with how full toned the electric piano is and you have what seems to be the epitome of rhythmic melody. Sometimes there is a little dulling of the shimmer in the synthetic high hats but they come through nicely in snappiness.
Matt Corby - “Resolution”
He sings falsetto in this song and just like all of the others it is full in body and tone, even richer than the HD650. Yet unlike Ben Harper’s song above, this one is a better match and there is no boxiness in the vocals. There is a war cry like rhythm and pace to this song with a drive that builds to a climax. This intensity is maximized by the Vali and probably only beaten by a good set of speakers. The Vali leaves barely any left overs and squeezes out all of the emotion there is in this song. I would say that a little more crispness in the cymbals would be literally all this song has left in it after the Vali is done. Sure the HD800S has more details but a lot less emotion.
I tested with other tracks from Amber Rubarth, Beth Orton, Robert Glasper, Muddy Waters, some Jazz to several others. I found these headphones to be more song selective than genre selective, yet never boring.
Playing Bob Moses - “Nothing at All” reveals a bass that is about as hard hitting and punchy as it gets for an open back dynamic headphone. Think 'Ortho' almost in solidity with good texture decent speed and a harder punch. Part of its musicality is owed to how engaging the bass is on this headphone. Compared to the Omni it hits even harder and is slightly more in quantity. The Omni on the other hand reaches deeper and is just as tight. There is a little bit of mid bass warmth going on here but not enough to cloud up the recording. It seems like Kennerton was keen on the wisdom of having a natural mid bass but slightly boosting the lower bass to give its melodic sound a proper foundation . Extension sounds slightly more than the HD650 because it has a lower bass hump whereas the Senn has a mid bass and upper bass hump. I largely prefer the bass of the Vali to the LCD2.2F(silent revision) as it is more focused and hits harder. There is not a lot of extra decay in the bass either so for the most part it’s very well done.
*The bass now in the final production unit has slightly less decay and seems tighter overall. Not bringing it into a whole new level but the improvement is noticeable. I don't hear the extension improved however but it seems a little less round with a little less decay. Though cleaner, there is less slightly less rumble and force in the production unit actually. Yet and still the production unit is a beast. The improvement is very welcome especially since the Vali had bass to spare.
I read sometimes folks saying that the HD650 is too full for them in the midrange. Please allow me to explain what I hear as neutral since everyone is entitled to their opinion I digress to mine. My point of reference for balanced most usually defaults to the Focal Alpha 65’s(studio monitors). The HD650 is not far from that reference of neutral, nor are most studio monitors and why the HD650 was used so much in professional environments. The Vali will sound richer than both of them yet texturally more smooth than most headphones. There is a thickness and a little reverb or trailing of resonance that adds to their timbral richness. For some songs it is a little much while others it creates a pleasurable euphony.
It is here sonically the Vali requires some caution before confessing it to be an unwarranted recommendation to all. But even more caution since it is usually more welcomed for a headphone to be dry in the midrange than slightly overdeveloped like the Vali. This overdevelopment is in the lower midrange and trimming couple of db or so in the muddiness area of 200-500hz may help relieve some of the thickness.
The audiophile realm has had a lot, I mean a painful lot of headphones in or around this price range that are tuned thin, sterile, or underdeveloped to boost the perception of clarity and precision. Take the HE560 for example, it’s bass is very tight, yet lean and the midrange is flat with a lower treble glare that is hard and unnatural. The Dharma, while very fluid in the midrange is bright as well as the Ether. My HD800S on the wrong recording and amp is down right prude even if it is my favorite open back at the moment. Those headphones do not have this slight reverb effect but they also are far less fleshed out in the midrange than this headphone which can be either good or bad depending on your tastes. For mine, personally I’d prefer that headphone manufacturers attempt richer and more realistic tunings that closer resemble what I am used to hearing in a mixing session. However these are more flattering than brutally honest no matter the application.
These kind of remind me of the LCD3 in the midrange but have a less detailed mid section, yet stronger dynamics. There is a bulge in the midrange making them the exact opposite of thin but huge Kudos for bucking the trend and reaching out to guys like me that search high and low for beautifully rich and full bodied tones. What makes the midrange so magical is not only the tonality but the dynamics, there is such a vibrant release of notes that grab you by your earlobes and pull you into the music. The upper midrange can sometimes sound a little laid back but not really overly so.
The ZMF Omnis have this sweet roundness and weight in its tonal accent that up until this headphone was very hard to come by. However, positionally the Omni is more distant since it casts a concave like image around the head. When ever the Vali gets a bit much the Omni is a relief. Inversely, when ever I wanted vocals closer and more intimate the Vali takes me there. This Kennerton now has seated itself among my favorite of midranges with the HE-6, LCD3, Omni, and HD650.
This headphone while punchy, has a rounded sound because it’s treble lacks a little edge even though it has some energy in the middle treble it's smooth. Telling a good recording is very easy and so is hearing changes in your chain. I know I am going off topic but its because when speaking of the treble I am reminded of a certain aspect of transparency this headphone has. Just like how subtle changes in gear are easier to hear than say with most headphones, so are mastering and mixing issues even though it is still very friendly to poor and harsh recordings. To my ears the Kennerton does not sound either airy or suffocating. It also doesn’t have the lower treble bulge that the LCD-X does, or the treble prominence of the HE-6. Don’t worry about sibilance, splashiness, or glare.. the Vali is very well behaved up top albeit a little less fresh sounding than the average audiophile headphone.
* I hear the bulge a little less present now than before but that is simply because the vocalist is a little less close to your ear positionally. To confess a preference, I may actually lean towards the previous revision on a song like Needtobreathe - " No excuses". The vocals are not as rich and forward. That makes them a lot less overbearing but since the bass is a bit forward and the vocals are relatively tucked backed, the vocals can face more interference from the bass now on some tracks, or at least the effect is more noticeable now. However, there is also now a more natural separation and the imaging is helped out a bit. The midrange now sounds a lot less like the LCD-3. I took the production unit to a meet and the upper midrange seemed a little recessed to some but the pre-production unit sounds more lush around the middle mids so it may be less noticeable on the pre-production unit. The treble is still the same, without the air in the last octave but remains very smooth and non-fatiguing and definitely dark. Overall the tonality is still very similar. I will say that the wonderful rich and solid tones are intact.
Soundstage and the likes:
The soundstage is okay in width and though it places vocalists really close to the listener, I get surprised at how sometimes sounds seem to appear from a more distant location than is usually the case for such an intimate sounding headphone. This has a sound stage acceptably wide but lacks a little bit of height. The depth is okay and the Omni is a lot deeper but because these are so dynamic yet rich, each note pops out of the recording like it’s in the flesh. The imaging is proper and the instrument separation is what you would expect from something priced just under a grand, still I have heard worse priced higher. When people use the word ‘open’ to describe a headphone it has been mostly misused to describe soundstage size. I would like to say that in the true meaning of the word ‘open’ the Kennerton Vali sounds about 79% open back whereas the HD800S sounds 95-100% open and free of any enclosure. Likewise my modded HD650(some unnecessaries removed) which has a much smaller soundstage, sounds like the air from the drivers is less restricted and thus is slightly more open. I do enjoy the sound stage of these headphones for the most part but I wouldn't call it the area it excels most at.
* Biggest improvement is the imaging and separation. The revision gains grounds in the precision department quite a bit in my opinion. You can tell its still same headphone but sounds seem less blended. The soundstage still seems a little closed but it is more spacious than the production unit. Layering and depth is even better improved in comparison to the pre-production unit.
Details and resolution:
The Kennerton Vali is not going to take a recordings guts and lay them out for an autopsy. Rather, it will give you a fleshy image of what is there. The subtle fluctuations of small noises are really fluid as well as the macro dynamics but the resolution is not super high definition. What you do have is a purity of tone and smoothness of texture that is polished. A grainier but more detailed headphone in comparison is like seeing the pixels on a detailed image, whereas the Vali has none of the pixel like view but is purposefully blurred like a photo edit to make a silkier and more polished image.
* I have to make a correction to the above. The Vali has a lot more details than I originally thought. It seems polished and smooth still but both units show good resolution for their tier. When comparing it to the HE5LE I found the Vali to have more inner detail but I was simultaneously confounded at the finding and shy'd away from sharing that. I will do more comparisons later to validate that. The new revision makes the details more instantly apparent than the previous revision do to the better imaging.
Punchiness throughout the Frequency Range(Updated section):
I wanted to call this attack, but its much more to it than that. A notoriously visceral headphone is the HE-6 and most of that has to do with how solid and dense its tones are. You can have all of the dynamics you want, but without solid tones it can pierce instead of slam. Every thwack, smack, punch, and kick is about as visceral as it gets with this headphone because it has wonderful dynamics but also solid tones for a dynamic. It's not as fast as an ortho and there is still that decay that dynamic drivers are known for but what makes the Vali so special is that it has that ortho like solidity and physical feel to the music that is very addicting to me.
I will quote @SomeGuyDude who really put it in clear perspective:
Okay here's my final thoughts. No pictures because, c'mon, there's been enough.
First off, I apologize to Kennerton but these are NOT comfortable. The weight of the Vali is difficult to deal with, not to mention the way the adjustments work. Yes, okay, you put them on and then tighten the screws down once they're in place, but I'm not a fan of that. I find myself fiddling with them far too much.
Okay, that's fine, but what about the sound?
I've had many headphones in the $1000 range, from Audeze and Audioquest, Shure and also sampled Sony and HiFiMan. The "density" and sheer impact that Grizz mentioned is very real. If you're hoping to feel your headphones at a level that's like the instruments are actually being played? These are your headphones. Are the Vali warm? Yeah, a little, but not at the expense of the high frequencies, what's most apparent is I suppose the hard impact of the lows and mids. While planars have their low extensions, dynamic drivers are able to move air to an extent that the orthos can't, and that's what makes the Vali feel so visceral.
I would argue that's the primary characteristic of the Vali: visceral. I feel the punch, the hit, the slam of my songs in a way I've never experienced them before. I'm a drummer, so percussion is VERY important to me when it comes to listening. I'm not impressed with neutrality or hearing flatness in extension over hearing dynamic impact of the drum kit. I'd rather hear hard hitting percussion over delicate strings and vocals any day of the week. To that extent, if you're like me? The Vali is very much your nirvana. LCD-2 pre fazor, Nighthawk, HE560, Th900, the list goes on of headphones I've dealt with. These are the best. They hit so hard, the air is physically moving against your head, but not in a false way of bumping bass to be Beats-level. It's just moving air heavily.
I apologize if this feels gushing but the reality is that if you are under $1000 but want headphones as far under $1000 as you can I'd say get the Nighthawks. However, if $1000 is an easy cap, get the Vali. The refinement makes them such heavy hitters that despite the discomfort, the heaviness, the awkward fit I'm so ******* happy to listen to the Vali through my Vali (oddly enough) that none of the physical difficulties matter. They're warm, they're bassy, for most they are not "accurate" in a flat response sense. However, the sheer impact of the Vali overrides all of that, to my ears.
If you are like me then the Kennerton Vali will be a rare find for you of musicality, dynamics, and tonal beauty. On the more subjective and experiential side of things, I had some friends over and out of all the headphones here ( HD800S, Omni, modded Pioneer HRM-7, Vali, DX1000, Audeze LCD2.2F) They wanted to listen to the Vali the most. Mind you they had never even seen any of these headphones before. They were impressed by the 800S but found them too bright and loved the richness, bass, and tone of the KV’s. They would play a song on Tidal and say “Lee… listen to this!” as they placed the vali in their hands...in fact that is how I found the Matt Corby song above… no lie. I feel the same way as they do but didn’t tell them my opinion because I appreciate it when people aren’t influenced and genuinely express what they feel. My wife, however likes the HD650 for some of the voices more than the Vali, but loves the Vali’s rendering of percussion. She doesn’t care about graininess, soundstage, placement and all of that other stuff I do. She also listens to Salsa y Merengue for which the Vali is king. For me, I give them a tie with my Omni’s since they trade off equally in different areas and price to performance are about the same in value, though the Omni is more comfortable, detailed, and deeper in soundstage, the Vali’s are even more musical, tone driven, and punchy.
I sincerely conclude the Kennerton Vali to be an outstanding headphone for the right person and personally can’t wait to own one.
* I own one and have become addicted to its visceral, wholesome sound. I have yet to hear a headphone quite like this one.
Gear used during review period:
Trafomatic Head 2
27"iMAC 5k retina display
HiFiMan He1000 (from TTVJ)
Pioneer HRM-7 Modded
Solid Silver RCA interconnects
Solid Silver Pailics XLR interconnects