| I would like to thank Gibson Innovations for the opportunity to review the H900M.|
Above: H900M top, A800 below
Edit: just upped the star rating as I swear before there were only 4 stars available and not 5. Either I'm crazy or something odd happened. Either way I bumped the rating up to reflect this. You would think I would notice this so I am pretty confident something was not quite right when I originally was presented the stars to rate with.
Before I begin, I would like to qualify my star rating. I would be very comfortable providing a 4 star rating when I consider the performance obtained using a modest parametric EQ adjustment (-4db) centered at 90Hz. I will provide more detail regarding this later in the review when I discuss the low frequency performance of the H900M. The specifications are as follows:
Frequency Response: 5Hz-40kHz
Driver: 50mm, closed architecture dynamic driver
Cable: 1.3m oxygen-free copper low-impedance twisted cable with inline microphone, 3.5mm termination with included 1/4" adapter
** The above frequency response is obtained using a HATS (Head and Torso Simulator) analysis.
A little about me:
Just to provide some context, I am 48 years old at the time of writing and I have been pursuing and enjoying fine quality audio playback through headphone and speaker systems since the early 1980s. I have been playing drums off and on for over 30 years and have attended many live concerts ranging from Judas Priest to Dave Brubeck. Currently I consider myself to be a modest bass-head, favouring a musical headphone that can stray from neutrality in the low frequencies as long as the quality and overall tonal balance of the headphone is respected. Musically I am an omnivore and enjoy a wide variety of genres; however in the last three years I have become rather enamored with electronic music and Nu-Jazz which makes up the majority of the music I currently listen to on a daily basis. However, for testing purposes I always listen to a wide variety of styles to ensure I am hearing the headphone's adaptability.
Comfort and Design:
The H900M is in my mind a comfortable headphone. If I had to give it a rating I would say comfort is a respectable 8.5 out of 10. The clamp force is appropriate and creates a nice seal. The headband seems to distribute the pressure nicely due to a well padded and wide design and the ear cups are while not plush, certainly adequately padded with synthetic leather and memory foam construction. Design wise as with the A800 I very much like the aesthetics and feel that the H900M has a retro art-deco vibe with clean bold lines and a simple form with a tasteful and understated black and gold colour scheme. The box is simple and no money is wasted on bling (although a simple travel pouch would be a nice addition).
The construction is solid with machine milled aluminum cups and a smooth metal height adjustment mechanism that retracts into the headband. In hand the H900M feels very well made and substantial and my handy digital kitchen scale tells me that with cable the H900M comes in at 413 grams. I find long listening sessions no problem at all so despite the weight (which does seem appropriate to me) the H900M wears well. It certainly could be a mobile headphone although as I use mobile headphones out and about on public transit it would be a little large for my tastes, but I know for many people, mobile means transportable and easy to wear moving around and the H900M certainly can be mobile in that sense.
Sound Signature & Quality:
All listening was done using a Chord Mojo and JRiver Media Center with lossless music. Overall the H900M is a well done contemporary sound signature moving toward warmth and weight of sound as opposed to neutrality. Despite the emphasis on low frequency and weight of sound, the signature still feels quite balanced top to bottom. Personally I like this approach and feel it lends itself to a fairly wide cross-section of music and listening environments. I did not deliberately test with poor quality recordings; however the breadth of material used was wide.
The treble is well extended and generally rather well done and grain free. I typically like to use cymbal work as a frame of reference as I'm very familiar due to years of playing drums and listening with speaker systems. I did not find the H900M to be fatiguing at all, or to excessively emphasize sibilance. I have one test track where the female vocalist puts a very deliberate emphasis on the s sound when she sings part of the chorus "... putting on the ritz". The vocals are rich and close miked and obviously a Z can sound like an S as sung so it is a great example of recording induced sibilance. I feel the H900M neither softened or emphasised this aspect of the performance, but most certainly it did reveal it, as well it should.
Cymbal work cuts through clearly and sounds natural as do the high notes in strings and vocals without overwhelming the music. The bells on cymbals have a nice voice to them and when cymbal work moves to the body it is equally clear and well presented. I have spent more time looking at the graph and comparing to my listening notes and it makes sense why the treble doesn't come across as bright or fatiguing as there are a few well placed dips that seem to work rather well and the treble amplitude remains well balanced with a bump around 3kHz and dropping off there after. I actually find the treble to sound well integrated, pleasant and properly extended. While I like bass energy and some warmth, I also love detail retrieval and in so much as treble plays a part in detail presentation, the H900M is well accomplished in my opinion. Last time I tested my hearing I could hear up to 14kHz still so despite getting older, my hearing acuity is still good. I actually stopped going to rock concerts a few years back as I wanted to preserve what hearing I had left for as long as I can. It seems evident to me that the strong low frequencies allow the treble to be perceived as well balanced, and this is again the reality of listening; musical elements are heard together not in isolation so graphs can only tell you part of the story of a headphone.
Again, the midrange seems to me to be coherent and well integrated into an overall balanced signature. Voices have nice timbre and presence to them with plenty of nuance and detail. I like listening for micro detail in bass guitar, snare drum work, piano and synthesizer passages and as with all musical instruments, the frequency spectrum portrayed by the middle frequencies is crucial to accuracy and enjoyment and the H900M really seems to be bang on target here. I never got the sense that the low frequencies were more than very modestly bumping up against the midrange detail that I expected. Guitar and bass string reverberations against the fret are quite nice. I used several pieces of music where such features are important and I always felt pleased with the quality and quantity of the midrange. I listened to some wonderful Alexis Cole, Slowly Rolling Camera, Diana Krall, 9Bach, Fleetwood Mac, Holy Cole and other midrange rich performances and the H900M is most certainly not going to be accused of sucked out midrange and is very capable of rendering the female voice quite nicely.
Here is where I will find some fault with the H900M, but ultimately qualified, and not fatal fault. As far as my testing reveals, there is some excessive bass energy that can be revealed around the 90Hz range. It can produce a droning effect when the music has plenty of amplitude in this area, and I found with prominently mixed acoustic bass in a recording, this trait would be most evident and could be detrimental to the sound. As you would expect layering and separation can suffer when this range is overly prominent and at times that was the case, but again, we aren't talking significantly. I assume this is a design trade-off and fairly typical for an affordably priced closed design headphone (at least in my experience). This was easily corrected in the majority of cases with a simple EQ cut. I used EasyQ and centred my cut on 90Hz attenuating the amplitude down by -4dB with a spread of one octave. In my mind this is a very reasonable amount of effort to be made given the overall very positive bass performance the H900M is capable of.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I listen to quite a bit of electronica, and otherwise bass centric music. I love drums and strong, rhythmic bass lines however they are created, so a headphone must be very competent in this respect to work for me. I would say that the bass quality of the H900M can be realistically compared with the Fostex TH600 which I owned and rather enjoyed. I think the nod for layering and control of the low frequencies would go to the TH600, but not by a wide margin at all. The mid-bass is as indicated by the frequency graph north of neutral, but well controlled and capable of surprising detail. Songs such as The Chain by Fleetwood Mac on the re-mastered 35th anniversary of Rumours, or Steely Dan's Negative Girl have plenty of mid-bass information where detail is still there to be had and the H900M was up to the task. This held true for everything I threw at it. Yes the bass is emphasized, and yes, those who prefer neutral sound signatures are not likely to appreciate the signature of the H900M as much as I do, but for those like me who enjoy a well done, weighty, bass-competent signature; with some modest EQ tweaking the H900M is frankly a top performer in my experience in this price range.
I currently have the wonderful Sony MDR Z1R as my main closed headphone, but despite this competition in the house the H900M has surprisingly been able to earn head time. The Z1R as it should, does everything better, but at $2299 MSRP against the $299 price suggestion for the Onkyo offering, I don't think this should be surprising. Percussion has plenty of attack and weight and tonality is quite good. I think the transients are for the most part also very good allowing the H900M to be clear, but here is where the performance may give some up to a more neutral bass signature. The perceived speed of the Onkyo is also quite good I find and given my love of electronica, this is certainly important to me. Decay can at times be a little elongated, but again, this is not of a magnitude that I consider to seriously impede the enjoyment of the H900M, nor does it make it sound slow and congested and certainly not unanticipated with a closed architecture.
This is another pleasant surprise with the H900M, it actually has rather good sound stage presentation. The depth is good, but the width is better. I find the height to be quite acceptable and in terms of a spherical, around your head presentation the Onkyo fairs well. It certainly isn't going to make you give up your favourite open back headphone, but when you need a closed headphone you aren't going to feel claustrophobic and boxed in either. The center image is fairly strong, but not so rigid that vocals can't push outward. I use Tundra (among other tracks)by Amber Rubarth to assess soundstage (thank you to Brooko for having introduced me to this track) and the instrument placement and sense of space is quite acceptable. It isn't like the 800S, but the H900M also has more weight and isolation so at times these trade-offs are just fine with me.
Again, you will find what is in my mind a reasonable design trade-off and lose some layering and separation as compared against a properly executed open design, but you gain bass impact and weight to notes. Will the H900M be for you? I certainly don't know, but I think you should give it a listen. The H900M is a well presented, cohesive and musical sound signature. Perhaps it isn't for the accuracy nut, or for those seeking the last word in clarity and refinement, but on these metrics the H900M is still quite acceptable, and for those who want to just listen and be involved with an engaging contemporary sound signature, I personally feel the H900M is full value for the asking price. I look forward to hearing what others think about this excellent offering.