Sennheiser Urbanite XL Over-Ear Headphones

Overview

The Urbanite XL is a new addition to the Sennheiser range and was offered to me for review by Head-Fi user, White Lotus, as part of an Australian review tour made possible by Sennheiser so thank you to ‘Lotus’ and Sennheiser for making this possible.

I’m not sure what the plans are for the Urbanite (on ear) and Urbanite XL (over ear) models – they may be intended to replace the existing Momentum range or they may be intended to offer an alternate style of headphone and therefore be a completely separate line so I’ll review them without any direct comparison to the Momentum range.

Throughout this review I’ve been lazy and just typed “Urbanite” each time, but please know that I am always referring to the XL (over ear) model. I haven’t tried the on-ear model.

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content coming soon!

 

Thinksound On1 On-Ear Headphones

Thinksound is a company that’s focussed on sustainable and environmentally conscious headphones. In fact, they even offer a recycling program for headphones with a bonus if you recycle their headphones, but I doubt you’ll be doing that any time soon with the On1s – you’ll be hanging on to these puppies with everything you’ve got!

Overview

Thinksound’s On1 headphone is a foldable, portable, closed, on-ear design that retails for roughly $350 (AUD). In Australia you can buy them from Noisy Motel. A big thank you to Billy from Noisy Motel for putting me onto these gems – they continue to amaze me every time I listen to them!

  • Frequency response:  5 – 22,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  50 ohms
  • Drivers:  40mm dynamic
  • Cables:  4.5 feet (2 equal length cable options with / without phone mic and remote)

At $350, the On1s are competing with some outstanding competition from the likes of AKG, Sennheiser, Beats, Kef, Focal, and various other brands, but they more than hold their own with their sound and offer something unique with their striking timber finish.

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content coming soon.

Mr Speakers Mad Dogs 3.2

fostex_t50bigThe Mr Speaker’s Mad Dogs headphones have been around for a while now and are currently produced as revision 3.2. To understand the reason for the revisions, let me explain the genesis of these ‘phones.

Mad Dogs begin their life as the very affordable and not particularly special (except for being very neutral and a little bass-light) Fostex T50RP. Over many years, Dan Clark (the founder of Mr Speakers) tested various mods to the T50RP which resulted in the product we have today. Currently (on the 3.2 version), the mods include everything from new ear pads, sealed vents, and internal damping to a leather “comfort strap” which sits directly below the stock Fostex headband. The result of all this modification is a similar looking headphone that is sturdy, robust, comfortable and a great performer at its very modest price ($300 USD).

To read the review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content coming soon.

Planar Magnetic Comparison – HE-500 vs LCD-2

Most headphones on the market use a “traditional” driver technology referred to as dynamic drivers. These are much the same as the speakers you see in your stereo system or car with a cone of some sort driven by a coil of wire inside a magnet structure. In the past, planar magnetic technology was a fringe product in the headphone world, but over recent years this technology that was once nearly abandoned has enjoyed a resurgence to create some of the finest headphones on the planet. I’m going to talk about 2 of them here…

Audeze LCD-2

SAM_0151-4The LCD-2 was first released around 2010 and marked the first headphone from Audeze and the first really well-known planar magnetic headphone of the current generation. The LCD-2 has since undergone multiple revisions to tweak and improve on the sound and comfort. My pair are a December 2013 model which were made shortly before the most recent upgrade known as the Fazor. For the sake of comparisons to your tastes in music, the December 2013 version of the LCD-2 brings more treble energy and detail than its predecessors, but it’s still a warm / smooth sounding headphone compared with similarities to the HD650 (although I believe the LCD-2 is noticeably better than the HD650).

To read the rest of this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound site – it’s sexier and will have more great content coming very soon!

SoundMAGIC HP200

11010050I have a confession to make. I have completely disregarded the SoundMAGIC headphones for ages simply because of their name. It wasn’t the fact that they’re a Chinese (i.e. not German) company because I love some of the IEMs and headphones coming from companies like HiFiMan. No, the simple reason is that I thought the name sounded a bit dinky and cheap.

It was only because the HP200s were setup as a demo at the recent AV Show in Melbourne that I heard them at all and I was really excited to discover a hidden gem. These are an incredibly well-priced headphone for their outstanding performance and well worth considering for anyone looking at headphones like the Sennheiser HD650s or HD600s.

Overview

The HP200 is an open-backed full-size headphone from Chinese manufacturer, SoundMAGIC. SoundMAGIC built a reputation on their excellent budget IEMs, but are showing with their HP100 (closed) and HP200 (open) headphones that they can play at a higher level too.

Specifications

  • Driver:  53mm dynamic
  • Frequency range:  15 Hz – 35,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  20 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  98 dB / mW (at 1 kHz)

With a price tag at a little over AUD $300, the HP200s are direct price-point competitors for headphones like the Audio Technica ATH-AD900 and AD900X, the AKG K/Q701, and Beyerdynamic DT880 and DT990. That’s stiff competition, but I would also go so far as adding the much praised and more expensive Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 to that mix. Intrigued? I was…

Design & Comfort

11010059These are some nice looking cans – and they feel as good as they look!

They are made from a combination of plastic, metal and faux leather and everything looks and feels solid, but not heavy. When you pick up the HP200s they just feel great – soft and smooth where they should be (ear pads, headband, etc.), and solid and sturdy everywhere else. In terms of design and build quality, the HP200s are easily on par or ahead of every other headphone I listed above as their competitors so we’re off to a good start.

The headband slider is metal over plastic and moves in clearly notched increments. It’s even labelled with numbers painted onto the metal to help you return to your perfect settings every time.

The outside of the ear cups are covered in a gloss black metal grille that looks and feels great. Meanwhile, other parts of the frame are made from high quality soft-touch plastics that feel almost luxurious.

In terms of practical design, the HP200s are basically faultless. Their visual design is a matter of taste, but isn’t going to offend anyone. I personally wasn’t “wowed” by the styling of them, but I would also be very happy to have these displayed on my headphone rack.

Electronic Design

The HP200s have a relatively low, 20 ohm  impedance which helps them easy to get good volume levels from portable devices but can be a double-edged sword because lower impedance leads to less control, especially in the bass and can reduce the overall tightness in the sound of the headphone. If I had to pick a fault with the HP200 it would be this low impedance. Had these been a >100 ohm headphone, they might just have completely dethroned some of the long-term kings of the category. As it is, they are great, but can be a little bit picky with the source / amp used. If you try these or buy these make sure you use them with a source or amp that has an output impedance below 2 ohms. If you listen to them and they sound a bit loose and flabby try another amp or source – it’s not the headphones.

Accessories

11010051It’s always nice to receive some extra goodies with a set of mid-to-high level headphones and the HP200s deliver with a nice black hard-case, extension cable and airline adapter. A really nice touch is the pouch that’s built into the case using a velcro system so you can store your adapters, etc. in the case without them rattling around and damaging your headphones.

Cable Options

I mentioned the extension cable provided with the HP200s, but it’s worth going a little deeper.

11010057The headphones come with a straight, 1.2m cable which is great for desktop use, but won’t reach to your television and may be a little limiting if you like to move around without always having your source at your hip. The extension cable takes care of that by adding a couple of extra metres to the cable. The main cable ends in a 3.5mm jack with a screw on adapter for 6mm connection while the extension cable ends in a plain 3.5mm plug without screw thread.

In addition to the extension option, the HP200s have a detachable cable which uses a simple 3.5mm stereo jack so it would be very easy to buy (or make) a replacement cable if required. If you did decide to go the custom cable route though, it’s worth noting the SoundMAGIC locking system which limits the size of the plug used (and means the plug won’t lock into the headphones so it could pull out if accidentally tugged on.

The stock cable is a little bit prone to hold the “waves” created by coiling so a slightly better cable would be nice for ergonomics, but it sounds fine.

Comfort

Having waxed lyrical about the great feel of these headphones in the hand, it’s probably a good time to consider if they feel as good on the head!

The simple answer is “yes”. The HP200s are very comfortable. The soft ear pads are very comfortable and the cups are big enough to fully cover the ears without putting pressure anywhere and without getting too big. The padding on the headband is sufficient to keep it comfy for long listening sessions, but I’d say overall the headband is not quite as comfortable as some of the best in the game (HD650 / Beyer T1, etc.) due to a slight sense of pressure in the centre of my scalp. It’s worth keeping 2 things in mind here: firstly that I have no hair to add padding between my scalp and the headphones, and secondly that I am being very nit-picky to find anything you might want to know.

Overall I’d rate the HP200s as a fraction behind the HD650s in terms of comfort, but it’s literally just a fraction.

Sound Quality

The HP200s garnered their comparison to the HD650s on account of their sound signature. Similar to the HD6X0 series from Sennheiser, the HP200’s sound smooth and a touch warm, but without losing any detail. They have more top-end sparkle and clarity than the HD650s and may be more akin to the HD600s, but I can’t compare directly to the HD600s because I don’t know the HD600s well enough.

Bass

11010060The HP200s produce excellent, controlled bass that has plenty of body and impact in the mid-bass region, but without bloat and boom. Once again they’re quite similar to the HD650s in their presentation. Bass is warm, full and smooth with kick and presence. It’s not the most detailed bass I’ve heard, but it’s very enjoyable and tends to flatter most music I’ve thrown at the HP200s.

I often use Marrakech by Incognito to test bass because it opens with a well-recorded kick drum that really tests a headphone’s ability to move the air cleanly and tightly, but with force. The HP200s performed beautifully here and sounded as natural as anything else I’ve tried. The presentation had both the sound and the feel of standing in a room with a kick drum being played.

The HP200s also have sneaky sub bass. I was about to write that they didn’t go as deep as I might like, but I changed tracks and found the hidden rumble. While not quite at the level of the Beyer T1s (which cost nearly 4x the price of the HP200s), the sub bass is present and authoritative. While not a bass-head can, the HP200s are very impressive in the bass department, but present the bass in a very natural and musical way.

Mids

Hopefully you’re not getting bored of my HD650 references yet because there are at least 2 more to go.

The midrange from the HP200 is clean, smooth and balanced with everything else. Nothing about the midrange sticks out, but I think that’s exactly how it should be because it means nothing is being overshadowed or over-emphasised.

Switching over to Tin Pan Alley by Stevie Ray Vaughan, the guitars and the drums had beautiful texture and clarity, but were buttery smooth the way they should be. What struck me though is a level of openness that I think was lacking from the Sennheiser HD650s. People often talk about the Sennheiser veil and although I never bought into it 100%, I can understand where the term came from. To my ears, the HP200s present the same quality of silky smooth midrange for vocals and instruments, but manage to add a tiny amount of edge and attack that the HD650s never gave me. That edge takes the sound from relaxing and enjoyable to exciting and enjoyable. It does this without bringing fatigue – just excitement.

I also like to test headphones with tracks from the Alison Krauss and Union Station album, Paper Airplane because some headphones can sound a little glassy with some of the strings used. The HP200s aren’t among that group though. The strings all remained clean and “plucky” (for want of a better term), but without getting edgy and fragile sounding. To sum it up I guess I’d say they maintained both warmth and detail which is perfect!

Treble

11010053

If you’re waiting for the big “but” here and expecting the HP200s to falter you might be disappointed, but the treble does require some discussion.

Final HD650 reference alert! In my opinion the HP200s deliver better treble than the HD650s. It is brighter, more detailed and with more extension. Where the HD650s may have an edge over the HP200s is that they never become sibilant. It’s not a regular issue, but it is possible for the HP200s to sound a bit edgy in the treble, particularly if a track has been poorly recorded or heavily compressed. While not brutal like the T1 or HD800 headphones, the price we pay for treble detail and extension is the risk of sibilance. I personally think the HP200 balances the divide really well. Overall it’s still a smooth sounding headphone, but without drifting into anything mushy or vague.

I think the sound engineers at SoundMAGIC created a beautiful balance between enjoyable listening and detailed listening by presenting just the right amount of treble, but without going to the extremes and revealing every flaw and weakness in the music or the source.

Staging & Imaging

When listening to the HP200s, the headstage (a new term I’ve picked up from someone somewhere and prefer to soundstage because it recognises the fact that it’s all inside the head) is spacious and clear. The sound is intimate and feels like you’re up close to the musicians, but it’s not claustrophobic, just intimate. I noticed that the size of the headstage was influenced by the source I used. A better-matched source (i.e. <2 ohm output impedance) resulted in a larger, more spacious sound and a headstage which is clean, open and very lifelike.

Spacing in the headstage is good and instruments are well placed in a good-sized semi-circular stage. While I’ve noticed a few triangular headstages lately (front and sides with no depth at the diagonals), I’d say the HP200s perform quite well at the diagonals and present a convincing auditory picture. There’s also good vertical layering with voices sounding slightly higher than the instruments being played by singers.

In terms of imaging, the HP200s define the placement and boundaries of instruments really well. Listening to orchestral music, each instrument is clearly separated and defined and there is a nice sense of depth and placement within the stage.

I would describe the HP200’s staging and imaging as immensely enjoyable and relaxing. Sure, surgical tools like the HD800s will perform better at pulling apart instrument placement, etc., but the HP200s do a great job for enjoyable listening and a wonderfully relaxing and yet engaging presentation.

Summary

The easiest way to sum up this review is to say that this pair of HP200s was kindly loaned to me by Billy at Noisy Motel for the purpose of reviewing them. I am dropping them off again tomorrow afternoon and will not only miss them, but have started budgeting to by a pair. I like them that much!

I really wish I still had my HD650s to compare side-by-side with the HP200s because I have a feeling that the HP200s are on par or better in every area (as long as they’re paired with the right source) and a clear winner in the treble region. As mentioned, I have a feeling the HP200s are actually a very close competitor to the HD600s and look forward to a direct comparison soon hopefully.

In the meantime, if you have around $300 to spend on an open headphone and you’re looking for a headphone that delivers a slightly warm, but mostly neutral sound with plenty of detail and clarity then honestly look no further than the HP200s. I’ve tried the HD650s, HD600s (briefly), DT880s, AD900s, AD900Xs, and various other headphones at this general price-point. The HP200s are the first ones I’ve decided to buy since owning my T1s and selling my HD650s. If I could have HD650s or HP200s at the same price, I’d still choose the HP200s and the same goes for all of the other headphones at the same general price-point with the possible exception of the HD600 which I need to listen to in more depth.

Don’t be put off by the relatively unknown brand-name and lack of European heritage, the HP200s are the real deal and an absolute must-listen before spending any money on an open headphone. I can’t stress enough though that these must be paired with the right source. With a poosly matched source (like my tube amps) the HP200 sounds better than average, but with the right amp / source, the HP200s are simply astounding – not just for their price – simply astounding, period.

Onkyo ES-FC300 – Giki Gill’s Headphones Mass Review (Part 2)

The next headphone up in Giki Gill’s Mass Review (see Part 1 here) is the Onkyo ES-FC300.

When I first heard the FC300 I wasn’t particularly impressed. I thought it sounded nice, but a little bit “commercial”. When I saw that Tyll over at InnerFidelity really liked it I figured I should give it another chance and I’m glad I did!

Overview

The FC300 is an impressive,subtle and sleek looking headphone, especially for its sub $200 price. (I’m not sure it’s recommended retail price, but it’s easily obtained for under $200 based on some quick searching I did for this review). Anodised aluminium cups and sturdy plastic headband and frame make for a light, but quality-feeling headphone. The specs are as follows:

  • 40mm titanium drivers
  • Detachable dual-entry cable (1.2m)
  • Frequency response:  10 Hz – 27,000 Hz
  • SPL:  97 dB / mW
  • Impedance:  32 ohm

Design

10050042The FC300 doesn’t feel at all like a sub $200 headphone. Even though it’s design is very simple, it doesn’t look or feel cheap. The cups are well padded (as is the headband) with nice soft faux leather and were comfortable for a relatively long session as I wrote this review. Eventually, I became aware of some pressure on the top of my head and a little where the pads sat on my ears, but it was minor and something I expect I would adapt to. Not only that, but I see these as a commuting and short stint can, not an all day listener so their comfort is absolutely fine for that.

The FC300 isn’t foldable, but the cups rotate flat so the headphones could easily be slipped into a satchel style bag or backpack.

The final design item of note is the detachable dual-entry cable which makes cable replacement upgrades possible. The dual-entry design also means you could set these up to run balanced (dedicated positive and negative / earth for left and right, instead of shared earths). Of course, you might question the point of running a <$200 headphone in a balanced setup, but if it’s cheap and easy, why not?

The stock cable is really nice. It’s relatively thin, but feels like good quality and is terminated with a nice looking right-angled jack which is perfect for portable devices.

Listening Notes

The most impressive and immediately obvious feature of the ES-FC300’s sound is its bass. You just don’t expect this quality and quantity of bass from an affordable on-ear. The bass is tight and controlled, but deep and punchy at the same time. It’s some of the nicest bass I’ve heard from a portable type headphone. Whether running from a full-sized headphone amp or from a portable player (RWAK100), the bass remains impressive. At 32 ohm and 97 dB sensitivity, the FC300s are easy enough to drive that you’ll enjoy great quality from any source including phones, iPods, etc.

Despite that mini-rave about their bass, the ES-FC300s aren’t a bass monster. Unlike the previously reviewed JVC HA-SZ2000s, the Onkyos are less about bass and more about overall musicality. The mids and treble are really nicely balanced with the bass and the overall sound is enjoyable and musical.

I wouldn’t describe these as neutral headphones, but they’re also not overly emphasised in any one area. I would describe them as dynamic with a slightly boosted bass, but not heavy colouration.

10050045At first listen, I thought the FC300s had slightly tinny upper mids and this may be true, but I adapted to the different signature very quickly and didn’t mind it at all. I think it’s a case of it being different to my daily listen (Beyer T1s / Unique Melody Miracles) rather than them being good or bad. Now that I’m used to their sound I don’t feel like they have any significant flaws in the upper mids other than them being a little drier in that region than my other cans, but they’re not bad, just different.

My final comments on the listening experience with the FC300s has to go to their staging and imaging. Closed cans are rarely an exciting experience when it comes to staging and often sound very closed in. While the FC300s aren’t going to beat many open cans, they are extremely impressive for a closed can at their price point.

The stage is well defined and of a good size extending just beyond the ears to each side. It has fairly good depth (very good for a closed can) and a nice sense of vertical layers. I really like how it presents the image of the sound because everything is very nicely defined and not at all crowded despite the closed design.

Overall I’d say these are an exceptional sounding headphone and I’m so glad I gave them a second chance – thanks Tyll and Inner Fidelity!

Summary Recommendations

For:

  • Price
  • Bass
  • Well-balanced version of dynamic sound
  • Stylish and quality-looking design

Against:

  • Nothing

Would I Buy These?

Absolutely! I’m seriously considering grabbing a pair to share with my fiancée because I think they’re excellent value, look great, sounds great and are a nice option for fold-flat portability.

Alternatives for the Price (or Less)

At this price and with this performance it’s a hard headphone to beat, but you could try:

  • Audio Technica ATH-M50
  • SoundMAGIC HP100 (a tad more expensive)
  • Shure SRH-840

JVC HA-SZ2000 – Giki Gill’s Headphones Mass Review (Part 1)

A friend of mine recently lent me a whole bag full of headphones for a few weeks so I figured I should review them. The only issue is that there are so many of them!! There’s no way I can complete a full review of each one so I’ve decided to consider them all in one mass review. I’ll summarise the pros and cons of each headphone along with some listening notes on each one so I hope it helps you to join me in exploring Gill’s amazing range of headphones. All price references will be from Amazon where possible in order to keep consistency.

JVC HA-SZ2000

First up is the slightly mental JVC HA-SZ2000.

Overview

The SZ2000 is built like a tank and was instantly one of the most visually interesting headphones in the bag of wonder that Gill handed over. Here are the basic specs:

  • Closed design
  • 16 ohm impedance
  • 108dB sensitivity
  • 4Hz – 35kHz frequency range

Pricing starts at around $250 on Amazon.

Listening Notes

10050046

The SZ2000 offers prodigious with very well controlled delivery. Wearing these is like walking into a nightclub with a high quality PA setup – the bass is obvious and visceral, but not boomy or loose. I don’t consider myself a bass head, but I really enjoy the bass from these beasts.

With all that bass you would be forgiven for expecting a muddy or congested presentation, but the SZ2000 surprises here too. The soundstage is clear and defined, but intimate as you would expect from a closed can. In shape, the soundstage seems a bit triangular extending to the front and each side more than diagonally, but it’s still an enjoyable presentation and quite spacious for a closed phone.

Treble from the SZ2000 is detailed and clear, but a little rolled off. The end result is a fatigue-free listen that still offers plenty of detail. It’s actually pretty ideal treble balance for a bass-oriented can and reminds me of the presentation of nice mid-level speakers in a good listening room.

Mids are presented without any significant colouration, but there is a slight veil over the sound to my ears where the vocals don’t sound like I have the singer actually in front of me. Instead it sounds like the singer is behind a sheer curtain – not thick enough to obscure the clarity, but enough that the sound doesn’t reach me directly. It’s minor and only noticeable when I listen critically, but it’s there.

Design

10050048The SZ2000 is a large headphone clearly not designed for portability (unless you have a big bag). Construction is predominantly high quality plastic with some aluminium trimming which appears to be almost entirely cosmetic rather than structural. There is ample soft padding and soft leather around each ear cup and the drivers are lined with a soft fabric. The headband is also well padded and covered on the top with soft leather. A nylon mesh covers the padding where the headband contacts the scalp.

The cable is terminated with a nice looking gold 3.5mm jack and the SZ2000s performed well from a portable player so the 3.5mm jack makes sense even if they’re a fairly bulky headphone to use with a portable device.

These are quite heavy cans and I can imagine them becoming uncomfortable after more than a couple of hours, but for an hour or so they felt fine to me. What I did notice though was some warmth around my ears due to the snug enclosures on each ear cup. This could be an annoyance for some people.

Summary Recommendations

10050047

For:

  • Great bass
  • Relaxed sound is relatively balanced despite the enhanced bass
  • Solid and attractive design

Against:

  • Weight may be an issue over an extended period
  • Ear cups may be too snug for some

Would I buy these?

Yes, I would. I think they’re a fun listen and are reasonable value. They’re not the end-game in any area, but they’re a good headphone in many areas (especially deep and punchy, but controlled bass).

Alternatives for the Price (or Less)

Not an exhaustive list by any stretch, but here are some options that jump to mind:

  • SoundMagic HP100
  • Shure SRH840
  • Audio Technica ATH-M50

Beyerdynamic T1

Beyerdynamic are a well known name in the headphone industry and in the professional audio world. I have toyed with the idea of purchasing Beyers on many occasions, but never pulled the trigger… until now.

Specifications

  • Style:  Semi-open
  • Frequency response:  5 – 50,000 Hz
  • Impedance:  600 ohms
  • Nominal SPL:  102 dB

To read this review please head over to the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content.

 

Fischer Audio FA-011 Limited Edition

The Fischer Audio FA-011s have an existing following of fans. They’re known for their price / performance ratio and their bass performance in particular. So what happens when they create a limited edition version of the famed FA-011?

Specifications

  • Style: Open
  • Frequency response:  18 – 22,000 Hz
  • Sensitivity: 98 dB
  • Impedance: 160 ohm
  • Cable length: 2.5m
  • Connector: 3.5mm

DPP_0009cUpgrades over the standard FA-011

  • Exotic timber cups
  • Upgraded, shielded cable
  • New logo badge
  • Velour pads (more on this later)
  • APE-03 frequency filter

Overview

The LEs grabbed my attention at a Head-Fi meet here in Melbourne. Having listened to HE-500s, HE-6s, and my own HD650s during the day, I was really impressed with the LEs when I tried them. I’m not suggesting they’re better than the planar magnetics from HiFiMan and I’m not comparing them here, but in the company of outstanding gear the LEs shone for what they offer. The LEs are priced at around $480 so they’re nearly twice the price of the stock FA-011s, but they’re a upgraded in a lot of ways.

DPP_0001cWithout taking anything away from the outstanding FA-011s, the LEs are a brilliant upgrade. The wood used for the cups is beautiful, exotic and comes in 5 different varieties. The cable is much higher quality, and the APE-03 frequency filter refines the aggressive FA-011 sound to make it more balanced without sacrificing any of the dynamics and energy the 011s are known for. With just a brief listen I was impressed at how close in overall sound quality these came to the HD650s which cost about $70 more and are recognised as a benchmark headphone across the industry. The LEs aren’t better than the HD650s – they’re different. I’ll explain in more detail later, but the short version is that I turn to the HD650s for some things and the LEs for others – splitting them is a matter of preference and music style, not performance. I’d peg the LE as a more aggressive and dynamic equal of the HD650.

Truly Limited

Only 40 LEs were produced worldwide – 10 per timber for 4 timbers. Noisy Motel scored 12 of the 40 for Australia. There may be more being wrangled down here to Australia (via the Noisy Motel), but it will some of the original 40 units so these are a truly exclusive headphone!

Design & Comfort

The design and comfort of the LEs is almost identical to the stock FA-011s. They’re well put together (albeit with some slight variations as a result of being hand-made) and the materials all feel excellent. The design uses a sprung headband suspended below 2 rubber-clad metal bands which also house the cable from the left ear cup to the right. The cups are hinged for rotation inwards / outwards, but not any rotation. The design doesn’t really need anything more though as comfort is very good as is (possibly with different earpads) . DPP_0004cThe LEs come with a new / different velour earpad which also has a fine acoustic mesh across the centre of the driver. Unfortunately, the LE pads are a bit thinner than the stock pads and become quite uncomfortable after a 1-2 hour listening session. This is because they don’t hold the cups far enough from my ears and leave the inside of the cup pressing against the outer edges of my ear. Thankfully, Billy from Noisy Motel was able to provide some replacement earpads from the stock FA-011s which instantly solved the problem and are very easy to fit with no tools or impact on headphones.

DPP_0006cI have to say that I LOVE the upgraded cable on the LEs. It’s thick and heavy so it doesn’t tangle or get caught under my office chair wheels. It makes the LEs less portable, but they’re an open headphone so chances are you won’t walk around with them playing anyway (except at home and then it doesn’t matter). I don’t know if the core materials are any better than the stock 011s, but it looks good and feels good (and the headphones sound great so the cable can’t be too bad) so I’m happy!

Sound

DPP_0007cIt’s really hard to sum up the sound of the FA-011 LEs. They’re aggressive and “in-your-face”, but manage to do this without ever getting obnoxious, sibilant or fatiguing. The bass from the LEs is outstanding in terms of both texture, presence and extension. The bass goes low, is quick and tight, and has plenty of body. The top end is resolving and detailed, but not blistering. The mids are realistic, smooth and natural – not enhanced or emphasised at all to my ears. The LEs are a little confusing in that they separate sounds really well. There is no doubt where each instrument and performer is within the soundstage, but the soundstage is quite small. It extends roughly to the outside edge of each earpiece and doesn’t have a lot of height or depth. That said, it rarely feels crowded. One of my favourite test tracks is “Good Excuse” by John Butler Trio particularly because the recording allows some nice vertical (top / bottom) layers in the sound as well as the normal horizontal (left / right) layers. The LEs don’t really exhibit any vertical layering the way say the Unique Melody Miracles do, but Good Excuse is still a really enjoyable track to listen to on the LEs. Perhaps the most impressive attribute of the LEs is their ability to handle everything I’ve tried them with. They have the bass impact to rumble and thump when required, but also the detail and resolution for the subtleties and texture of more refined acoustic and classical tracks. If I had to criticize the LEs in any way, it’d be a slight glassy-ness or edge on some acoustic guitar tracks. The edge doesn’t sound natural because it’s not exactly how a guitar really sounds. It doesn’t sound bad or artificial (like some Ultrasones have that artificial metallic twang to the upper registers), but it just sounds like the sound has been altered ever-so-slightly from its natural sound.

HD650 vs FA-011 LE Comparison

HD650 outer packagingI bought the LEs after listening to my HD650s all day. That, and the fact that they’re in the same price ballpark make it an obvious comparison so here are some thoughts based on some track-specific comparisons. I’m focussing on what stood out to me during each track rather than a blow-by-blow description of each headphone’s sound. Please refer to my HD650 review if you’d like more information about the specifics of the HD650.

Stuffy – Arne Domnerus from Jazz at the Pawnshop (192kHz / 24-bit)

This is a great recording in a jazz club so there’s plenty of ambience and space in the recording. There are also plenty of natural textures and resonance in the sound so it’s easy to hear how naturally the headphones portray all the instruments and the space around them.

  • HD650s – more space and ambience let’s you hear the jazz club surrounds, but the sound is a little muted in comparison to the LEs.
  • FA-011 LEs – cleaner highs and details – cymbals have texture and presence and the piano is more “present” in the sound mix, but at the expense of some ambience.

Switching between the 2 headphones I preferred the sound signature of the LEs. I’ve never before been a supporter of the Sennheiser “veil” description, but I can kind of understand it now. I don’t think the HD650s are bad by any stretch (they’re a wonderful headphone) – their laid back presentation is a large part of their charm and the space and ambience they create in the soundstage is brilliant, but there are times that I crave the clarity and definition of a can like the LEs.

Sinking Stone – Alison Krauss & Union Station from Paper Airplane (96kHz / 24-bit)

This track is light on bass and high on acoustic sounds in the upper mid-range which is possibly the weak point for the LEs.

  • LEs – as expected, the LEs sound a little glassy and fragile with this track, but shows better textures in the vocals. In particular, the male backing vocal is more noticeable and clear, but isn’t enhanced or pushed forward, just well-placed and separated from the other sounds.
  • HD650s – creamier mids and slightly more enjoyable overall even though the backing vocal isn’t quite as well separated. For tracks like this I would always reach for the HD650s.

The summary is pretty clear here. The HD650 excels with the acoustic instruments (guitars, etc.) and vocals while the LE is a bit glassy despite being wonderfully detailed.

Within – Daft Punk from Random Access Memories (44.1kHz / 16-bit)

This track has a nice range of different sounds including piano (always tough to recreate authentically), drums and other percussion, deep bass, and electronic vocals.

  • HD650s – once again the HD650s create more space and on this track also separate the vocals really well so they’re prominent and clear.
  • LEs – the snare is alive and the bass has presence and impact. The chimes have sparkle and clarity that the HD650s can’t match.

The LEs won this battle on the strength of their bass and treble performance. This track covers the whole range so completely that the HD650s sound a little bland in comparison to the LEs’ outstanding extension in the bass. The space and ambience of the HD650s don’t have enough impact in a track like this to offset the frequency range performance.

Good Excuse – John Butler Trio from Grand National (44.1kHz / 16-bit)

  • LEs – layering and textures are excellent. Excellent separation of percussion, piano, and other instruments
  • HD650s – I can’t believe I’m using this word, but they sound a bit veiled (in comparison only). The HD650s are smooth and present more space, but lack some impact down low. The details merge together a bit compared to the LEs, but I think a lot of that is due to the fact that much of the detail in this track comes from acoustic guitars and percussion.

The LEs performed surprisingly well on this track given the heavy use of acoustic guitars and other instruments that dwell in the upper mid-range that can be the LEs weak point. I think the full-range sound in this track off-sets the potentially glassy upper registers of the FA-011 LE.

It’s really important to note here that the HD650 improves significantly on Crack!

What I mean by that is that these tests were conducted driving both headphones from the Audio-gd NFB-5.2. My normal amplifier for the HD650s is the Bottlehead Crack and it has a magic synergy with the HD650s. When I tested the HD650s on this same track but using the Crack, the results were quite different. I would probably still choose the LEs for their bass response and detail, but the separation of instruments and textures became much better with the HD650 / Crack combination.

Violin Concerto in G Major – Marianne Thorsen / Trondheim Solistene from HD Tracks (96kHz / 24-bit)

I thought it was important to test these 2 on some really well recorded classical music. An orchestral or chamber group presents a lot of similar information all at once (i.e. multiple similar instruments versus guitar, drums, bass, etc. which are all different). This makes it a different sound experience. Oh, and because a lot of people like to listen to classical so I thought they’s like the comparison.

  • LEs – the sound is more natural, clean and resolving, but like standing on the conductor’s podium where there’s not a lot of space between me and all the musicians
  • HD650s – much better sense of space, but not as intimate – I feel removed and placed back in the audience somewhere

This was a great test to finish on because it sums up these 2 headphones perfectly. The LEs once again presented more detail, texture and clarity – a more dynamic overall experience, but I felt like I was listening to a good set of headphones – I couldn’t get completely lost in the music. The HD650s once again excelled with the space and ambiance they presented. I felt like I was in the audience listening to the performance which was great, but I felt like I was a couple of rows too far back and that the sound was being muffled slightly by the people and seats in front of me.

Conclusions

This has been a slightly frustrating review because it’s shown me that the ultimate headphone in the $400-ish price range is actually a combination of the HD650 and FA-011 LE. The HD650 outperforms the LE in terms of soundstage size and ambiance while the FA-011 LE outperforms the HD650 in terms of detail, clarity and overall frequency balance (including its awesome bass response!)

So what does that mean for this review and for my headphone collection?

DPP_0002cIt means I will happily keep both headphones in my collection. The HD650s have earned an unassailable place in audiophile lore for good reason. They’re not a perfect headphone from a technical perspective, but they are wonderfully easy to listen to and create an amazing ambiance in the music.

The FA-011 LEs, the star of this show, are an incredibly enjoyable headphone. They perform at every part of the frequency range, they provide superb bass impact, texture and speed, and great detail and clarity. Perhaps most amazing is their ability to do all this without causing any fatigue. Yes, they’re in-you-face and aggressive, but in the most likable way somehow. I haven’t enjoyed bright, analytical headphones for a while now because of some treble sensitivity, but the LEs manage to deliver all their detail and clarity without any fatigue or discomfort.

I think there are some great headphones around this price point (HD6X0, HE-400, DT880, etc.) and the LEs definitely deserve a seat at that table. They are enjoyable, dynamic and revealing, but never inducing of fatigue or discomfort. The provided pads are best changed for stock pads if possible for more physical comfort, but it’s a simple switch.

I would recommend these to people wanting an open headphone which doesn’t sacrifice on bass or overall tonal balance (i.e. they’re not bass monsters, just brilliantly balanced across all frequencies). I wouldn’t recommend them to people seeking large soundstages, but I know some prefer the intimacy of a tighter stage. Remember the LEs don’t lack separation and layering of sounds, just overall space in the soundstage. They are everything the stock FA-011s are known for only better in every way!

AKG K420

For a while now I’ve been looking for a good office headphone – something that I could take with me easily, not disturb others, but be able to hear what’s going on around me when needed. Oh, and it had to sound good, be easy to drive from a laptop or portable player and not be too expensive. It was quite a list to fill.

Ladies and gentlemen…. introducing the AKG K420 – perhaps the greatest budget, portable, open headphone around.

Overview

K420 Box trans

  • Frequency response:  13Hz – 27kHz
  • Input impedance:  32 ohms
  • Sensitivity:  125dB (SPL/V)
  • Cable length: 1m

The K420 is an open or semi-open style, folding, portable on-ear headphone. They come with a simple carry pouch and not much else, but that’s really all you need and it keeps them highly portable and light.

The simplicity of accessories and design also keeps the K420s at a great price point. At around AUD $70, they are a fairly low-price headphone in the scheme of things, but don’t let their price point fool you – they punch well above their weight.

Similar Options

When I went to buy the K420s, I had a few options on my shortlist:

  • AKG K420
  • Koss Portapro
  • Sennheiser PX100-II
  • Jays V-Jays
  • AIAIAI Tracks

All of these options are priced similarly and all have some good attributes going for them, but for me the K420s covered everything I needed without dropping the ball in any category and sounding the best overall (in my opinion)

Versatility

The AKG K420s sound great driven directly from a wide range of devices including:

  • Laptop
  • USB DAC (Audioquest Dragonfly)
  • iPod (5.5G runnin ROCKbox)
  • Tralucent T1 portable headphone amp
  • Cowon X7
  • Sony Xperia TX (android smartphone)

As you can see from this list – the K420s are happy with pretty much any source. This is partly due to their moderate impedance and their high sensitivity, but also due to the fact that they aren’t super-revealing audiophile headphones – they’re good quality, everyday listening headphones.

Design & Comfort

The K420s are designed with portability in mind and the 1m cord is proof.  The lightweight folding design makes them easy to take anywhere, but not at the expense of a quality, robust feel. I never get the sense that a wrong move could damage or break the K420s. They aren’t built like a tank, but they will stand up to normal portable use and treatment.

k_420_denim_3d_view_on_white_The headband has a nice, rubbery insert where it makes contact with your head and I’ve found no discomfort during extended listening. Once again, they don’t quite compare to my AD900s or HD650s in terms of comfort, but for a lightweight portable, they are perfectly comfortable.

The earpads are covered in soft foam and are large enough to cover the ear making them comfortable and easy to place on your ear – no problems here.

Now for the one design flaw which is a minor one, but potentially worth noting. When you fold the earpieces in for storage / transport, the strain reliefs (extra rubber sheathing over the cable) where the cables exit each earpiece can easily be bent and put under pressure. That might be exactly why the strain reliefs are as long as they are (for extra protection of the cable), but I always feel like I have to be very careful when folding and worry that this could be a long-term weakness of the K420s. Unfortunately, only time will tell…

The last point in the design section is the cable length which will be a plus for some and a minus for others. At 1m it’s quite short and AKG don’t provide an extension with the K420 so there’s no flexibility here. I find the 1m cable length to be ideal for working at my laptop and sitting with my phone / iPod, but some may yearn for just a touch more length – it’s a very personal thing based on where and how you use your headphones.

Sound

Overall, the sound from the K420s is engaging and fun, but keeps everything under control so there’s no fatigue from a bright top end or bloat from enhanced bass. All-in-all, the signature is slightly V-shaped meaning that the bass and treble are probably ever-so-slightly forward compared to the mid-range, but the mids don’t get lost which is great because the quality of the mids is fantastic.

Bass: Strong and impactful, but never bloated. Compared to the PX100-II, the bass was less prominent and switching between the two made the K420s seem a little light on bass at first, but further listening on their own showed a nice full bass with good depth and body.

The bass won’t blow you away and may not suit some hip-hop and electronic fans the way something like the PX100-II might, but the K420’s bass is very versatile and has surprising extension and impact when thrown some hip-hop or electronic. It has a nice warmth, quite good texture and sounds good with everything I’ve thrown at it. It has significantly more presence and body than something like the HiFiMAN Re-272, but keeps it clean and controlled.

Mids: I love good mids and the K420s manage to satisfy. Every now and then a track will make me stop and really listen to the smooth and liquid delivery of the K420’s midrange. The super-sweet mids seem dependent on the track being played, but they are always solid. Overall, the mids are solid around 85% of the time and hit a sweet spot on around 15% of the tracks I’ve tried – mostly when there’s a little less high frequency activity in the track.

Highs: The K420 has peaky highs. Without looking at a chart of the frequency response it’s hard to pick exactly what’s going on, but they can seem bright in one moment and smooth in another. Overall, the highs are always fine, but they are a little bit variable and err towards the brighter side. Thankfully the K420s don’t get fatiguing or harsh – probably because of the nice warmth provided at the bottom end to balance out the top end.

Although not super-resolving and transparent, the K420s have nice high end detail and keep things clean and clear enough to sound good with every style of music I’ve tried.

Presentation: The K420s create an adequate soundstage, but nothing exceptional. Instruments are well placed in the soundstage, but the size of that stage is quite limited and tight to the head. There is little to no forward projection of the sound which means that everything is crammed within the space between your ears, but it doesn’t sound too cluttered – just not spacious and holographic like some much higher priced headphones. Once again, for the price, the K420’s performance is at least up to expectations. In terms of staging it doesn’t outdo its price tag, but it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of these relatively budget headphones.

Summary

For a sub-$100 portable all-rounder I really don’t think you can beat the AKG K420. When viewed in perspective with their price, they are far ahead of most similarly priced options and will actually outperform some more expensive options too. Are they the last pair of headphones you’ll ever own? No. Are they a pair of headphones worth owning? Yes.