Pros - Price, Mids, Bass, Smooth treble, Light, Swivel 90* with backplate OUT, detachable cords, Competes with more expensive headphones
Cons - Materials are all plastic, pads are a a budget vinyl, there is a $20 knock off of the same headphone
Kicker HP541 the budget performer
*Note, this review also applies to the Monoprice MHP-839 which is a rebrand of the same headphone. So I have both reviews with the non-model-specific info simply copy & pasted. Same headphone!
A couple of us here on Head-Fi were looking for some budget performers that could compete with higher end headphones that are constantly being suggested to new people who have never owned a pair of good headphones (that they know of). And we all know the problems associated with "flavor of the month" stuff. I will specifically be referring to the Audio-Technica M50 for the most part because that's the headphone that the HP541 and MHP-839 directly compete with for sound and application. The price differences being $20 (MHP-839), $50 (HP541) and $150 (M50). I sounds completely rubbish to assume a $20 headphone can compete with a $150 headphone with so much praise. I had to try it myself to calm the curiosity. So I compared all three headphones together for this, which means I bought all three. So if you're interested, the following is what I've learned about them.
What Comes in the Box:
The headphone itself.
Twodetachable cords, a shorter smaller portable cord, and a very long cord for desktop use.
A 1/4" adapter (both cords terminate into 3.5mm).
HP541 comes with a carry bag. MHP-839 does not come with a bag.
Construction and Materials:
The construction is all plastic. The HP541 has a hard rubber on some of it's bits, including the driver backing, whereas the MHP-839 has matte finish plastic every where instead. I much preferred the hard rubber material, as it was much like Ultrasone headphones I've had in that sense (all plastic, some hard rubber). They are built rather well, they don't feel like cheap break-in-your-hands toys. They are incredibly lite, and I felt like they were too lite even, but that's a relative issue depending on the person. The cups on both headphones are a little smaller than the AudioTechnica M50's. I had to move them around a little to make sure my ear was completely inside the pad. This is a con to me, as any smaller and they would become on-ear instead of around-ear headphones. So someone with big wombat like ears would not like these cups, someone with average or even small ears would likely be fine. The pads are the same on both headphones, it's a vinyl type material and very smooth. I personally don't like it, I prefer harder material like real leather to plastics and vinyls and ultimately I prefer velour to everything because I don't like wet sweaty rings on my pads while wearing them. So this issue is relative to the user, I don't like the pads. Someone who normally uses pleather/plastic/vinyl pads will likely not notice that material difference the way a velour user would. The foam inserts in the pads and headband are the same, stiff, but not like a board.
A huge mention goes to swivel cups. These are the only cups which I've had that swivel only 90" that swivel so that the back of the driver faces up (ie, the logo side of the cup faces the world) when worn around your neck. All other headphones seem to face the driver out to the world, when they're worn around the neck in between listening. This is a huge plus in my book because I like to know something isn't dropping down into the driver house. Instead, the back plate is out, and it's more protected that way from spills, food, sudden splash, objects, etc.
The cords are detachable, they will pull right out of the headphone when snatched, so pretty protective if that's a thought. They both terminate with 3.5mm jacks that plug right into the left cup on each model. No extra pinning to make it stay. So it breaks away very easily. In other words, if someone yanked it, it would come out and not just pull the headphone off your head or you to the ground in the process. The cords are two lengths. Very short, and very long. Obviously one for portable use and one for desktop home use. It comes with a 1/4" adapter since both cables terminate with 3.5mm jacks. Both cords are otherwise unremarkable.
The bag that comes with the HP541 says "Kicker" on the side. The MHP-839 does not come with a bag.
What's in the HP541 box.
HP541 Driver House. Did you get enough Kicker logo yet?
HP541 and MHP-839, the same headphone, rebranded. $20 vs $50. Difference? Logo and a bag.
HP541 size compared to AudioTechnica M50 size.
HP541 (and MHP-839) cup size compared to M50.
I'm not a proponent of burn-in, so I will not discuss that here. However, I will discuss what it's like to just put on some headphones and listen and compare to some other headphones, without voodoo and unmeasurable "sciences" being talked about. Let's see if I burned any hairs with that statement, hah.
Right way, first thing to note, both the HP541 and the MHP-839 sound exactly, literally exactly, the same. They are the same headphone in all ways except for minor cosmetic differences and one is packaged with a bag. That's a $20 vs $50 difference, yet same headphone. Keep that in mind. The MHP-839 right away is the better deal for the sound.
Quick reference to sound of the HP541 (and MHP-839):
Forward lush mids.
Deep, controlled bass.
Great for all genres, from EDM to Acoustic.
Sound stage is average for a closed headphone.
Easy to drive, no amplification necessary at all.
I ran various music from Ani Difranco (Acoustic), Regina Spektor (Folk/Pop), Euge Groove (Jazz), Ludovico Einaudi (Classical), Avantasia (Metal), Buckethead (Alt. Metal), Rusko (Dub), Robyn (EDM/Pop) for testing purposes (and enjoyment, of course).
We have no frequency response graph of this headphone, but if I had to guess based on my experience with a lot of headphones, the HP541 (and MHP-839) has a dip in the high treble, probably around 10khz or so. The highs roll off. It reminds me immediately of how a Sennheiser typically has rolled off highs that make it smooth. That's the sound of the HP541 & MHP-839 in terms of treble (and only treble). The highs are smooth. No sibilance at all. The highs are easy to listen to, no fatigue inducing shrill. Just ultrasmooth. This is not an analytical headphone or detail monster. This is an easy listening headphone that focuses on something other than treble. However, the treble is sufficient to allow for beautiful extension and highlight of sounds that are upper range frequency like some vocal accent, some instruments during acoustic, etc.
Compared to something like the M50, the M50's treble is more forward and more fatiguing, so the M50 is more of an analytical and detailed associated sound in the treble.
This headphone is all about the mids. The mids are projected very nicely forward and not recessed at all. Without a frequency response graph, they're higher than treble on the curve and the bass curve. The mids are the headphone's body. They're lush, very well rendered. Vocals sound great, guitar sounds great, etc. Mids make up the bulk of the frequency range, so someone who favors that sort of headphone will like this. This makes this headphone excellent for rock, jazz, acoustic, folk, indie, R&B, etc. I would say the sound is very lush and full and is the most enjoyable aspect of the headphone. This is a mid-monster on a budget. This headphone will perform on all genres due to this. Mids make the music, so to speak.
Compared to the M50, which has recessed mids, the HP541 and MHP-839 really stick out more in music where you realize you're hearing mids instead of just treble & bass.
The bass of the HP541 and MHP-839 is actually excellent, it extends low and powerful. It's very present, this is not an anemic headphone, it's also not a bass monster. It provides good present rumbling low bass without it taking over and it does not interfere with the mids. So someone looking for a headphone that can perform well with EDM and bass centered music, these headphones will do it just fine, but they will also turn around and allow you to play intimate acoustic without it sounding like someone turned up bass where it shouldn't be. The bass is fast, it's an easy to drive and doesn't clip at high volumes without amplification.
Compared to the M50, these headphones have the same bass roughly. It's just as deep, smooth and controlled.
Both headphones isolate well. This would not be the case if your ear doesn't fit inside the cup, so keep that in mind. Size of ear will change isolation on these headphones. Otherwise, they're closed back with an average isolation perceived wearing them.
The clamping of the headphone is normal, not too much, not flimsy feeling.
The sound stage is that of an average closed headphone, but it doesn't feel extremely clamped. There's good imaging, but you're not whisked into a 3D world without a source that does that for you. During acoustic playback, it sounded good, which is normal. It didn't sound like I was too distant nor all up in their junk. So sound stage for a closed headphone is good, which I would rate as average.
Compared to the M50, the soundstage is a little better. I felt the M50 to be very cramped in soundstage.
Retail Modification (interesting!):
The HP541 has retail decals you can buy that are vinyl that fit to the side of the driver backings so you can change the headphones to a different cosmetic look. They're non-permanent so you can swap them. And they're only $4 a piece. I bought some dark wood ones. It's a great way to spruce them up and get rid of the annoying spammed Monoprice/Kicker logo off the sides. They work for both headphones perfectly fine. I got them off Amazon, just search "HP541 Decal" and you'll find them, they work for both the HP541 and MHP-839.
Here's what the dark wood ones look like (they are removable):
Conclusion & Closing:
The HP541 and MHP-839 are surprisingly good performers. I actually prefer their sound to that of the AudioTechnica M50. They are smoother to listen to with more mids, yet are still very bass capable. For $20, the MHP-839 is every bit as good as the $150 M50 in sound. So if you're looking for a budget closed performer, the MHP-839 is it. It's a really good budget headphone that has the sound of far more expensive headphones.
The main issues I have with the HP541 and MHP-839 are the materials and quality of the pads. I don't like the size of the cups, they're a little too small for my liking, I like huge headphones, so this may be a relative issue and more my own preference. Otherwise, the materials feel like ok plastic, and are sturdy, but I still would prefer a more weighty material. The pads are my biggest, most fatal issue with the headphones, they're a budget vinyl that accumulates sweat very quickly which I don't like because I wanted these for portable use. I much prefer real leather, which is of course much more expensive, and overall prefer velour or cloth pads which absorb and don't get sweaty. This is more of a complaint of my own preference as I prefer cloth/velour over all other types. Some people like pleather/vinyl/leather. I don't. So take that as it is.
If you're looking for something like the M50, this is a better sounding headphone for it's cost. These things are inexpensive. I don't like using the word cheap since that can be taken as a negative. They're inexpensive, budget oriented, but don't sound that way at all. They sound like excellent gear sounds, that is well into the $100+ area. So someone looking for a great closed headphone on a dime or a gift for someone looking to get more interested in headphones, these would be a good place to start with perhaps.