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Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart Headphones Review / Preview

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  1. jude Administrator
    Some people (even in this community) can't stand to wear in-ear monitors, eliminating many of the best affordable on-the-go closed headphone choices. If this describes you, then you know how challenging it can be to find supra-aural (on-the-ear) or circumaural (over-the-ear) headphones that are lightweight, compact, stylish, sound good, and affordable. Today, Massdrop will start taking orders for the Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart headphones, and, with it, they’ve announced a solid contender that is all of those things.
    The Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart headphones bring an affordable model of Foster’s biocellulose driver headphone family that ranges from the more affordable (like the Creative Aurvana Live) to the high-end (like the TH-900 Mk2). Other current-production headphones in the family include the E-MU Walnut (which is essentially the walnut wood version of the E-MU Purpleheart), the E-MU Teak, the Fostex x Massdrop TH-X00 series, and the Fostex TH-610.
    E-MUXMassdropPurpleheart-02211.jpg     E-MUXMassdropPurpleheart-02227.jpg
    The Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart headphones are most like the E-MU Walnut, both models essentially being wood-cupped versions of the Creative Aurvana Live. (We don’t currently have the E-MU Walnut or Creative Aurvana Live here, so I won’t yet be offering any comparative commentary with respect to those.) The E-MU Purpleheart is quite light in weight (219 grams), so, in terms of build quality, one might think it a bit delicate in its construction. However, after a close examination, it seems to be built quite nicely, and torquing its headband back and forth did not show any obvious signs of fragility despite its lightweight build. (Keep in mind that I wasn’t doing V-MODA levels of corkscrew torquing here, just mild but significant twisting.)
    The Purpleheart’s wood earcups are very nicely finished, with a shallow profile that matches nicely with the lightweight plastic frame of the E-MU headphone. The matte finish of the cups on the sample I’m using is smooth, with the grain subtly showing through. There are no logos or print on the cups--in fact, there’s no print on the outside of the headband either--resulting in a headphone with a very understated appearance.
    Earpad size on the E-MU Purpleheart is going to make it supra-aural (on-the-ear) for most, and circumaural (around-the-ear) for the smaller-eared among us. For me, the pads do touch my ears, but the combination of very reasonable clamping force, and the cushion and surface softness makes for comfortable long-term wear over my very average-sized ears. The earpad outer covering is made of protein leather.
    The Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart's cable is a thinner, lightweight design, and is dual-side entry (meaning the cable goes to both earcups, not just into one). Unfortunately, the cable is not removable, but perhaps those inclined to modify their headphones would be able to make easy work of that. The cables is terminated with a gold-plated 3.5mm stereo miniplug.
    The headphone's nominal impedance (according to Massdrop) is 32 ohms, with sensitivity rated at 103 dB, and maximum input power of 1300 milliwatts.
    In terms of sound signature, the Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart is lovely sounding, with a spectral tilt that’s definitely on the warm side. It’s bassy, but I don’t find it overly bassy. I’m currently in Japan for e-Earphone’s Portable Audio Festival, and I was just on my way back up to my hotel room when I walked by these gentlemen playing jazz in the hotel lobby...
    DSCF4915.jpg     DSCF4918.jpg
    ...so I sat down to listen and watch, which I like to do whenever I can, whether in recording sessions, clubs, private recitals, the orchestra--or a hotel lobby. I love the sound of a live, unamplified acoustic performance. For me, there’s no substitute for physically being in the presence of acoustics charged directly by musical instruments within them--that sense, that tactile feel, of the music on your skin, on your body, your face, not just your ears. It's a conversation I've had many times with Jerry Harvey (of JH Audio), who feels that trying to reclaim the magic of that live feel from a headphone means having precise, fast, impactful bass presentation, but with some emphasis (versus ruler-flat by-the-book-neutral bass). Over the last several years, I've come to agree with him more and more, with each additional recording session I've been in, which each resultant recording from those sessions to compare to.
    Anyway, after listening to these gentlemen playing in the lobby, I headed upstairs to my hotel room, put on the E-MU Purplehearts, listened to the Brad Mehldau Trio while I answered email, and stopped to appreciate the surprisingly realistic presence and timbre of the stand-up bass being communicated by these headphones, especially considering the price. Not surprisingly, the E-MU Purplehearts can't carve out and get around every vibration of a bass note the way the best headphones can, but it certainly does more than its 75 bucks might suggest it would, especially for a closed-back headphone.
    The Purpleheart's richness of tone is also present in its midband, but with less overt bloom or emphasis compared to its bass presentation. The one thing I do wish more for when listening to the E-MU is more shimmer, more treble presence. However, in this regard, it's good for a $75 headphone, and I'd rather a headphone err on the side of treble smoothness than treble stridency (and I've found it tends to swing one way or the other more commonly in less expensive headphones).
    In terms of imaging, the Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart headphones do a fine job, without any sense of claustrophobia, especially in consideration of its closed-back, relatively small earcups. As I type this very sentence, "Robbers" by Cold War Kids shuffled into play, and while certainly no audiophile recording, there's enough width from the Purplehearts to give Nathan Willet's high voice space to breathe amidst the pretty spare (for a rock track) arrangement. In general, I've found very satisfactory soundstage space from the Purplehearts--again, especially considering their closed-back, small-earcup form factor.
    Just before leaving for Japan, we took some quick measurements of the Massdrop x E-MU Purplehearts. Here's the frequency response plot (click on the graph to see a larger version):
    To put that up against a very common (around here) reference, here's the Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart (solid line) versus the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX, which is the same as the Sennheiser HD650 (dashed line):
    Audio measurements were made using:
    1. Audio Precision APx555 audio analyzer
    2. G.R.A.S. 45BB-12 KEMAR with anthropometric pinnae and low-noise ear simulators
    3. Rupert Neve Designs RNHP headphone amplifier
    4. Herzan acoustic enclosure (custom)
    Consider these measurements preliminary, since we kind of rushed them, but know that there's nothing about what I see in them that seems out of place with my subjective assessment of these headphones. We may re-measure them at some point soon, and, if we do, we'll include more plots in this very post, like THD (total harmonic distortion).
    E-MUXMassdropPurpleheart-02229.jpg     E-MUXMassdropPurpleheart-02203.jpg
    As I understand it, the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD6XX was actually purchased by more non-audiophile Massdrop customers than audiophile ones, with the first batch of 5000 of them selling out in minutes. The feverishness with which the HD6XX sold out shows that for $200, non-audiophiles are willing to take the chance to see what a legendary audiophile headphone can do. At only $75, the Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart headphones may appeal to those folks just as strongly, especially given that they're closed-back and portable. I think it'll also strongly appeal to the audiophile types <raises hand> for a portable, very capable example of what Foster's excellent biocellulose drivers can do in a nicely executed, very affordable headphone.
    The drop goes live at 6:00 a.m. PST (9:00 a.m. EST), and there are only going to be 3000 available. I wish I could tell you you'd have a lot of time to think this through before purchasing one, but after the whole Sennheiser x Massdrop frenzy, I wouldn't count on it.
    Here's the link to the drop. Good luck.
    peter123 and Tro95 like this.
  2. caenlenfromOCN
    I grabbed these, I actually needed some closed backs as the only closed backs I owned were the 8323's by monoprice and they broke on me recently.  This is an amazing deal, having heard the original Aurvana (created by this same guy) I have no doubt these are worth well more than $75, surprised they are that cheap honestly, purpleheart wood is kind of expensive on its own
  3. alvin1118
    I've grabbed one too. Anyone mod it yet ? [​IMG]
  4. mslee03
    I already own the walnut E-Mu and I am trying to justify purchasing this one as well. What sonic differences are there between the walnut and purplehearts?
  5. project86 Contributor
    This was a tough one for me. Massdrop wanted to send out their new Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart headphone for my impressions, so I said "sure, send it on over"... without actually realizing what it was. I guess in my head I was picturing one of their large Foster-based models similar to the wonderful Massdrop TH-X00. I've enjoyed the original Denon D5000 family, then the Fostex TH900, and now the Massdrop version, so I figured the E-MU model would be lots of fun as well. I was curious to see what subtle changes they were able to achieve with their unique wood and other little tweaks.

    When the box showed up, I really didn't notice the size discrepancy - I get a lot of packages in the mail and they all sort of blend together. Once I got it open though, I realized I had been totally wrong about this thing. It wasn't the big over-the-ear headphone I know and love, but rather a little on-ear "portable" style headphone. I say "portable" in quotes because I'm not sure a delicate woody headphone is usually the best choice for that scenario. But from reading the forums it seems many people disagree with that sentiment, so I'll leave that discussion alone.

    The problem - this type of on-ear headphone usually doesn't fit me very well, and certainly isn't comfortable for the long heal. They also tend to sound pretty poor, though I'm sure a lot of that is tied with the fit aspect. I've enjoyed a few over the years such as the Sennheiser Momentums, the beyerdynamic DT1350, and my favorite, the V-MODA XS. But there have been many, many others which I just couldn't handle. I figured the odds were slim this Massdrop project would work for me.

    At first listen, I felt confident in my initial assessment. The headphones had a somewhat loose fit even on my big head, which led to inconsistencies in sound quality. The bass was overpowering and not what I'd call the cleanest either. The rest of the spectrum was smooth and relatively uneventful save for a bit of roughness in the upper treble. No big deal, I thought to myself, you can't win them all. After several recent projects that sounded amazing, there's no shame in having one that doesn't really excite me. I set the little Purplehearts aside and moved on to other listening.

    About a week later, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. I'm moving my main headphone gear to another room, so I had my racks completely bare, with DACs and amps and music streamers laying everywhere. The cable mess alone was almost comical, though interestingly my wife wasn't laughing. I eventually got everything moved but it took way longer than anticipated. By that time I had no energy left for actually getting it all plugged in and wired up. I was done.

    A situation like that normally merits a cold beverage - in this case I had a world-class Czech Pilsener waiting for me, but on any given day it might be an Oatmeal Stout or a Belgian IPA or... you get the idea. Along with my refreshing beverage, I of course need some music to enjoy, and the speaker rig was already occupied. But I had no working headphone system either... what to do? I suppose I could have grabbed one of the DAPs from my collection, but I figured it might be a good time to revisit that set of Purplehearts one last time. I'd just use the phone in my pocket rather than a fancy DAP, since I believe that's what Massdrop had in mind for this headphone anyway.

    I sat down, plugged in my ZTE Axon 7 (which sports an AK4490 DAC, so perhaps nicer than the average phone, but it's still no megabuck DAP), and cued up "Roots" by Curtis Mayfield. I'll be honest - expectations were low. In came the intro to track to the opener titles "Get Down", which starts out sparse and builds up layer by later until it reveals itself as a complex soul masterpiece. As the song progress I realized the sound wasn't bad at all. In fact I thought the headphone actually sounded pretty good.... really good considering the price! That bass I complained about prior now sounded quite a bit better, with a nice energy to it and plenty of kick. Nobody would call this neutral yet I no longer found it muddy or overblown to the extreme. Midrange was mellow yet engaging, capturing plenty of emotion as those wonderful Mayfield tracks kept on rolling. Highs were smooth and inoffensive, perhaps a tad darker than I'd like but overall fairly refined. A bit of roughness, sure, though not by any means a dealbreaker. This was a totally different headphone than the one I tried the week prior.

    I switched over to Joshua Redman's "Wish" and again was pretty impressed at what this little headphone could do. It had my head nodding and my toes tapping with its rhythmic drive, and allowed me to listen at a good volume without fatigue thanks to that smooth top end. That was always a problem I had with the old Creative Aurvina Live (or CAL, for short) which is the design on which the Purpleheart is based. That model had somewhat more "zippy" highs which forced me to listen at lower than ideal levels - the Purpleheart doesn't have that problem. Is it the last word in detail? Nope, but I don't find myself missing all that much, and the trade-off seems worth it to my ears.

    Next up came a hi-res version of The Persuasions Sing U2, full of beautiful vocal harmonies and rich sonic textures. On this one, the Purpleheart didn't come off quite as well. No major flaws to highlight but I just found it less convincing than usual - voices are something we all hear every day, and when something sounds even a little off in a playback chain it kills the illusion of realism. Again, nothing terrible (I've heard far worse from far more expensive headphones) but perhaps a little on too veiled to take full advantage of this material. I no longer own the CAL but I suspect this is one area where that headphone would retain the advantage.

    In an attempt at redemption, I went to a band not strictly compatible with audiophile sensibilities - Infectious Grooves, which Tidal describes as being a "provocative synthesis of funk and metal". This time around the Purpleheart nailed it - punchy low end impact, seductive midrange, and a bit of midbass boost making the bass of Robert Trujillo (former Suicidal Tendencies, current Metallica) really stand out. This is not a band who does Reference Caliber recordings, and the easygoing treble of the Purpleheart was like a soft focus filter in Photoshop - a forgiving nature that hides reality, but in a generally good way.

    It was at this point that I realized I had adjusted the headphone to fit a bit higher up on my ears than I normally would. Not sure it was a conscious choice, but I suspect my brain was trying to compensate for the loose fit I had felt earlier, thus prompting me to tighten the headband. The padding was evenly distributed and the weight was light enough to where this tighter fit didn't bother me. I then tried loosening things and ended up with the same mushy sound I heard prior - as with many on-ear designs, this headphone can be tough to get consistent results from. Especially at first. After some practice I found I could consistently get a good placement on my ears without much fuss, though obviously your results will vary. Once I achieved a good fit though, these were a whole new headphone, so I'm very glad I decided to give it another shot.

    Rather than going on and on with musical examples, I'll sum it up like this: the Massdrop x E-MU Purpleheart is an excellent dance partner with most modern recordings, pop, electronica, punk, metal, or any other genre which tends to not be all that well done. It sounds fine with things like jazz and classical too, but there is a moderate sense of missing out on the finer details in those cases. Many times that's not a problem though, and since the target market is likely using a smartphone and perhaps Spotify or other lossy sources, it may actually be a good thing. Reduced treble is generally preferable to present-yet-obnoxious treble, so this seems like a smart choice. Again, the treble is not the most refined, but neither is it bothersome enough to ruin the experience. Sounds like faint praise, but in this price range that's actually a big accomplishment.

    Overall I'd say the Purpleheart is a smooth, warmish, somewhat polite headphone that should make a lot of people happy in real world situations. I'm not completely sold on the wood cups as far as true portable use, but that's a complaint I've had with many headphones over the years (Audio Technica being the main culprit). At least the matte finish on these should hold up better than most. Massdrop has done what they could in reducing the fingerprint-factor, and the wood cups do seem less delicate than other woody headphones.

    As long as one can achieve a good fit, and knows what they are getting into as far as the less-than-neutral signature, this could be just the thing for listeners on a relative budget. The fact that it works well off a phone or other simple source is also very welcome. I can come up with better sounding examples yet nothing that dips below $100, so for $75 this thing seems like a winner to me.
    wahsmoh likes this.
  6. LajostheHun
    I would have grabbed one of these if it was single sided removable cable with the standard 3.5 mm on the cup so I could have used my BT dongle attached directly to them, like I use it on my NAD HP 50 or ATH M50. No more cables allowed on my portable HPs.
  7. joecrowley
    Thanks for the review!
    Makes me feel better about grabbing a pair this morning off Massdrop.
    I just cannot take my HD600 or Massdrop x HIFIMan HE350 on the bus with me.

    Can't wait for CanJam SoCal!!
    Like Christmas in March!
    : )

  8. mrgeek
    This has a great color but oh man we all have to wait until april of 2017 to get it the process is always so slow. But so worth it. I will buy the CAL! in the meantime.
  9. MattTCG
    Mildly interested. Waiting to get your impressions. [​IMG]
  10. caenlenfromOCN
    Impressions not needed, purpleheart wood at this price point is really nice, minimalistic styling for portable use is a major plus, and designed by the legendary guy who brought us original Aurvana, which you have ever heard is probably the most impressive little can under 70 bucks that ever hit the gaming market.  I am glad he has his own company now, he deserves it. I want to support him if nothing else. No doubt in my mind these will be lovely portable cans. 
  11. Ra97oR
    The CAL! holds a special place in my heart for being my first pair of decent headphones. Not gonna miss the chance of getting a nicer CAL! with Purpleheart wood instead of the glossy plastic shell.
  12. caenlenfromOCN
    Yep, I refunded my HD598 Closed version last month, was a joke imo, did not sound that good at all (original Aurvana, made by this same guy from EMU was 1/5 the price and sounded better ((imo)), no doubt in my mind this will blow it away, and save me money at the same time.  
  13. Townyj
    Just realised these are built on the old D1000, which i absolutely did not like. :/ Bit of a bummer really as they look great!
    Goldfish memories likes this.
  14. caenlenfromOCN
    That is a really uneducated comment... first off the Purpleheart wood itself will change the sound signature some by itself...
  15. Townyj
    After reading what Project said above, the sound hasn't magically changed a hell of a lot with the wood cups. The freq graphs look fairly close except for the top end, overall i found the D1000 boring. I will hold onto my cash and not take a chance.
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