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!

 

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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.

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

Ultrasone HFI-680

The Ultrasone HFI 680s sit squarely in the middle of the HFI range from Ultrasone. According to Ultrasone, they are the natural and balanced closed option in the HFI range. On either side is the HFI 580 (easier to drive and with a bigger bass punch) and the HFI 780 (also easier to drive and with a more dynamic sound designed for movies and gaming). For me, it was all about natural sound reproduction so after many auditions (thank you again to George and the team at Addicted to Audio) I chose the HFI 680s.

The HFI 680s are a closed headphone that isolate quite well from the outside world. With music playing, only loud sounds are noticeable and others around you won’t hear your tunes.

Out of the box, the 680s actually impressed me with their build quality. My initial impressions during auditioning weren’t great, but perhaps that’s because they weren’t new. Having appreciated the phones brand new, I am now more aware of the build quality, which is better than average, but mostly plastic. The headband has good flexibility and the phones fold up really nicely to fit inside a plush Ultrasone branded pouch that comes with them. There is a soft, pleather covered memory-foam pad under the headband which is quite comfortable for relatively long periods, but I find after about 1.5-2 hours I need to readjust where the pad is touching my head because of minor pressure pain. The pleather covered cups are very comfortable for long periods and clamping pressure is also fine. Of course, there’s some minor sweat build-up as a result of the pleather, but it’s the only way to get a good seal.

The 680s come with a 3m cable which is great for sitting in your favourite chair away from the stereo or TV, but it’s not so good for portable listening. A minor issue though that’s easily fixed with a velcro cable tidy.

The other inclusion in the package with the 680s is the Ultrasone demo disc. This disc is full of amazing recordings to hear what your headphones (Ultrasone or other brands) are capable of, but it’s mostly not music I would listen to for fun. That said it was fun to see how my new Ultrasones matched up against my existing phones and speakers.

Important note: this review is conducted using the 680s from an amplified source (in this case my Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD). They perform well from my iPod Video (5.5G), but struggled to have the same open, magical sound when driven by just my laptop. These headphones need a good source behind them so ensure that you test them thoroughly with your source player if it’s not amplified. Some portables will be fine while others will sound very ordinary through the 680s.

Quick Specs

Speaker Driver: 40mm

Frequency Range: 15 – 25,000 Hz

Impedance: 75 ohms (can be a bit tricky to drive for some portable devices and computers)

Bass

Attack: The attack from the 680s is excellent. They have great punch and good control. One of the benefits of high impedance headphones/speakers is improved control and the 680s definitely show this with their precision attack. My favourite bass test, “Take the Lord Along with You” by Wayman Tisdale had the 680s really dancing to all of the slap bass and they handled it beautifully with plenty of punch and feeling, but no real muddiness. On tracks with big, consistent bass, the 680s can start to sound a little bloated in comparison to more delicate headphones like the ATH-AD900s, but they are excellent bass performers for the dollars and make up for any slight looseness with their power and presence. While both the HFI-680s and AD900s have good bass attack (the AD900s slightly better controlled), the 680s come out sounding a fraction better here because of the extra punch behind the bass which I’ll discuss next.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Mass: The mass from the 680s is truly impressive. Your ears feel the bass just like your whole body would in a live concert. At times I fell like they overplay the bass just a fraction, but it’s fun and doesn’t detract from the quality of the sound. Listening to Also Saprach Zarathustra from the Ultrasone demo disc, the deep rumble from the pipe organ felt as good as it sounded, but some other tracks can get a bit uncomfortable because of the pressure created. It’s a double-edged sword. I love the feeling of the bass, but every now and then it gets a bit much. This is probably more a reflection of different recording and production values more than a fault of the headphones though so I’d still recommend the 680s for their overall bass style – it’s fun, lively and exciting.

Rating: 9 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The vocals and mids are rich and warm from the 680s. Not as warm as a headphone like the Shure SRH840, but still very cosy. The detail is there, but it’s a warm kind of detail. Very easy to listen to and never too forward.

Many closed headphones get a bit “canned” in the midrange. You can hear that you’re listening to a speaker in a cup, but the 680s avoid this completely. There’s no sense of that internal resonance and the sounds often extend beyond the physical boundaries of your head and ears.

Listening to Jette Torp’s voice in “Only a Woman’s Heart”, Joshua Redman’s sax in “Can a Good Thing Last Forever” and Ian Moss’ guitar and vocals in the acoustic version of “Thunderball”, all midrange instruments sounded realistic, beautifully present and silky smooth. The sound isn’t as airy as the AD900s I mentioned before, but it’s beautiful in it’s own way – smoother and a touch more mellow, but in no way lacking in detail or clarity.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Detail & Staging

I’m combining these 2 categories for this review because they are directly related in the case of the 680s and I believe it all comes down to the fact that they’re a closed headphone. The 680s have a very natural sound and that allows each individual instrument and texture in the music to play out the way it’s meant to. The detail they create is beautiful and lively. There could be just a fraction of masking created by the bass produced by the 680s, but if so it’s only minor. It could just be that they’re a little bit warmer and the fuller sound takes your attention elsewhere in the music (away from the top-end detail), but the simple fact that I can’t quite explain where the difference lies should give you a good idea that it’s very subtle and not a problem at all.

Ultrasone use a technique called S-Logic which directs the sound to your outer ear (the flappy bit) so it can enter your ear like live sounds do rather than being played directly into the ear canal. Whether it’s this technology or something else, the 680s are a very convincing closed headphone. The sounds often seem to be coming from somewhere beyond the side of your head and the imaging is outstanding. Closing your eyes with the 680s playing, you can easily picture where each instrument was being played and sometimes you can even pick the size and shape of the room or the crowd.

The only thing that holds the 680s back is a fractional lack of detail at the very top end and just a hint of harshness at times. In both cases I’m comparing the 680s to other options that excel in detail (like the AD900s) so, again, it’s a very minor issue. With the 680s, I hear 98% of all of the sounds in the music with harshness 5% of the time. With the AD900s I hear 99% of the sounds and experience harshness about 2% of the time. It’s a tiny difference and well worth the sacrifice for those times that I want extra bass or need to keep my music to myself.

Rating: 7 / 10

Overall

I did a lot of auditioning and listening before deciding on the HFI 680s and I can honestly say I haven’t experienced even a moment of buyer’s remorse. These headphones are another example of truly great value for money (they retail for around AUD $300). There are better headphones out there, but not for the price. Having listened to similar priced alternatives from Shure, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser and Beyer-Dynamic, the 680s came out clear winners.

Like many good headphones or speakers, they really shine (and I mean REALLY) when given a good source player and some good music. If you have an amp or a high quality output device like a full size iPod or hi-end player from companies like Cowon, HiFi Man, etc. you will really enjoy these headphones. To get better sound, you’ll be spending a lot more money!

I feel like I haven’t described enough about the sound of the 680s in this review, but, on reflection, I think that’s as much a testament to their balanced, natural sound as anything else. Nothing about the 680s stands out over anything else and that’s a good attribute for a set of headphones. They’re not exactly neutral, but they’re well balanced across the spectrum. The 680s are fun, exciting and realistic – everything you want with nothing you don’t.

Overall Rating: 7.5 / 10

Quincy Jones AKG Q460 Review

As per my recent post “When Branding Meets Audio“, more often than not, musician-endorsed headphones seem to be below average quality. It seems almost safe to say that in the majority of cases, the musician branding is done to make up for crappy, mediocre headphones

Quincy Jones AKG Q460

I was hoping the Q460s would break this trend and they certainly look promising…

Straight out of the box, the Q460s look and feel great. They’re light, made of nice materials and have a great carry case that’s compact and solid. The package also includes 2 different cables – a really short, plain cable and a slightly longer one with volume controls for iPhones and certain iPods. The cables are bright green to match the Quincy Jones branding, but my headphones are the black version (as pictured).

When I first listened to these, I made the mistake of coming straight from my Audio Technica AD900s which have a very clean, balanced and lively sound. In comparison, the Q460s seemed muddy and lifeless, but that’s not entirely fair to them. Listening to them clean (i.e. having not listened to anything else for a while) is a different experience and while they’re not perfect, they’re not as bad as I first thought.

Quick Specs

Impedance:  30 Ω (portable player friendly)
Frequency Range:  8 Hz to 24 kHz
Max. Input Power:  30 mW

Bass

Attack: The attack from the Q460s is punchy, but not entirely sharp. I always use “Take the Lord Along with You” by Wayman Tisdale for this test because it’s a bass guitar instrumental with plenty of lively bass activity. The Q460s handled TTLAWY without too much trouble, but it’s not the best I’ve heard it sound.

Rating: 6 / 10

Mass: The mass of the bass in the Q460s is truly impressive. For a little pair of on-ear headphones, the bass is epic while still controlled. Listening to “Who Could It Be Now” by Luciano (feat. the Jungle Brothers), the bass is massive, but well placed. It doesn’t drown other frequencies, but gives you the full impact of the track. The bass output from these headphones is very realistic – they create the feeling as well as the sound so a smooth bass guitar not both sounds and feels right.

Rating: 8 / 10

Vocals / Mids

The mids and vocals are a mixed bag with the Q460. Certain vocals and instrumentals sound warm, rich and smooth, but some others sound a bit harsh and forced at the upper end of the midrange. Jamie Cullum’s “These Are the Days” is quite unpleasant (for a set of good headphones) because of the upper-end raspiness of his voice. The tone of his voice just seems too forced through these phones. Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy and Amy Winehouse also edge into this slightly harsh territory on the Q460s. On the other hand, “Tin Pan Alley” by Stevie Ray Vaughan is smooth and lush and sexy with Stevie’s guitar sounding as silky as ever, and Nas’ rapping on the Illmatic album sounds clean and punchy over the top of the beats behind him.

What this really means, is the the vocals and mids will sound great on some of your tracks, but may sound a bit edgy on others. It’s not a deal-breaker, but this is an area that can make the listening experience a little less than perfect.

Rating: 6 / 10

Detail

Detail isn’t the strong point of the Q460s. They’re not super sluggish, but they’re also not detailed. There are certain mid-range frequencies that really shine through and surprise with their clarity, but other sounds get lost in the mix. The Q460s are a smooth and rounded sound rather than an accurate detailed sound. That’s not to say it’s bad – some people will no doubt prefer it to the sharpness of more detailed phones, but for me it’s a tiny bit too smooth.

The top end frequencies are very subdued in the Q460s and some tracks really sound like they’re missing something – like there’s a hole. Interestingly, adding the standard treble boost equaliser on iTunes or iPods / iPhones brings an extra sparkle to the Q460s that makes them quite lovely. I don’t like having to use equalisers because it introduces noise and distorting into the sound and also means constantly changing settings if I change headphones, but if you were permanently using the Q460s with you computer or portable player, a permanent EQ setting can create a really enjoyable portable listening experience.

Side Note: where possible, if using EQs on electronic devices such as iTunes, iPods and iPhones try to create your EQ so that nothing is above the central line. In other words, if you wanted the 16kHz frequency 3 clicks louder, don’t raise it by 3, but drop everything else by 3 clicks. It makes EQ setting a bit more fiddly, but the sound quality will be better and will just mean turning up the master volume a tiny bit more.

Rating without EQ: 4.5 / 10

Rating with EQ: 6.5 / 10

Staging

Whenever I listen to closed cans, I expect a restricted soundstage. It’s a rarity to find closed cans that can create an open, wide soundstage. It is possible, however, to have good sound placement within the closed space created by closed cans.

The Q460s place the sounds quite well, but all of the placement occurs in a very tight area. The sounds are placed in a band that runs from one ear around the inside of the front of your head to the other ear. In other words, the stage is as wide as your head and has a narrow range of forward depth – it doesn’t really extend out in front of you very much, but it’s not bad as such. The sound placement is accurate and clear and instruments are clearly defined in most tracks even if they’re not spaced a long way apart. Listening to the “What is Hip” by Tower of Power (Sheffield Labs, Direct Plus! version), it sounded like all of the horns, rhythm, organ, vocals and guitars were crammed inside my head, but I never felt like anyone was on top of anyone else – and that’s a busy recording!

Rating: 5 / 10

Overall

At full price I think these headphones are a little pricey, but if you can pick them up on sale or second hand they could be a good option if you like your music smooth and lush with plenty of body in the bass. They’re a much better option than some of the alternatives like the Beats range by Dre so check them out before buying any other musician-branded headphones.

They’re comfortable, well made, look good (even in the green) and have a great, compact carry case.

I would recommend them for:  Hip-Hop / Rap, Electronica, some Rock (listen to them first), mellow Jazz

I wouldn’t recommend them for:  Acoustic, upbeat Jazz , Blues, Pop

Overall Rating: 5 / 10

$300 Headphones at a Glance

I had a great afternoon today, courtesy of the team at Addicted to Audio (www.addictedtoaudio.com.au) I spent about an hour and a half in their audition room checking out a bunch of closed style headphones for around $300. I’m not going to try to give you a full-blown review for all of them, but thought a little description of each pair might be helpful. Here goes…

Shure SRH840 (approx. $200)

Shure SRH840

Having read lots of good things about the 840s, I came in with them high on my shortlist and they didn’t disappoint. The 840s have a warm, but detailed and balanced sound. They’re very easy to listen too, but not boring. Of all the phones I listened to today, the 840s probably had the sweetest midrange. The sound of rim-shots (when the drum stick is used against the metal rim of a drum) sound very warm and woody – just like they should.

Pros: The 840s are easy to drive and ran perfectly from iPod and laptop. They’re also comfortable on the head and have good padding all around.

Cons: My only real issue with these phones is the small cable running outside of the body of the headphones. Just about each cup, a small cable comes out of the housing and then loops back into the cup. This is obviously to allow for adjustment, but leaves a potentially fragile piece of the headphones exposed to accidental damage.

Verdict: These are still very much on my mind and may yet be my final choice given they are so easy to drive. They’re not as exciting to listen to as the Ultrasones, but they are more comfortable and have a beautiful smooth sound signature while still being detailed and crisp. They’re also a great deal at just under $200.

Ultrasone HFI 580 (approx. $250)

Ultrasone HFI 580

I knew nothing about the 580s going into this afternoon, but considered them because of their price and the fact that they’re easier to drive than the 680s. I was told that they are more bass oriented than the 680s, but can’t say that I was overly aware of that.

Having already listened to some other headphones, the 580s weren’t as good and therefore left the shortlist fairly quickly. That said, they’re a very capable headphone and would definitely suit a lot of people, but I like a bit of extra high-end sparkle and detail. It’s a very subtle gap in the 580’s sound signature and it took direct comparisons to realise that the 680s gave me the sparkle that the 580s lacked – it’s very minor and those who prefer a slightly warmer sound will definitely like the 580s.

Pros: The soundstage is huge (for closed headphones) and the sound is lively, detailed and exciting.

Cons: Although solid, the construction is a bit plastic and they’re not as comfortable as some comparable headphones.

Verdict: The HFI 580s are off my shortlist, but only because they were outdone by their senior sibling, the 680s and that was only by a hair. They’re a great headphone with balanced sound, solid bass and a smooth, slightly less bright signature than some others.

Ultrasone HFI 680 (approx. $300)

Ultrasone HFI 680

The 680s were high on my shortlist after reading plenty of good things. They didn’t dissapoint. Plenty of punch, plenty of detail and that awesome Ultrasone soundstage. It’s important to note that the 680s really do need amplification. I listened to the Shure SRH840 and the Ultrasone HFI 680 side-by-side and alternated between them across a variety of music. Initially, I was listening through a dedicated headphone amp, but soon moved over to my iPod and then laptop so I could hear some music I was more familiar with. I wasn’t using amplification at this stage and started to be amazed at the difference between the SRH840s and the HFI 680s. At first I put it down to the music selection, but soon realised it was amplification. Once an amp was added, the 680s once again edged ahead of the 840s in terms of their lively detail and punchy presence.

Pros: Punchy, lively sound in a great big soundstage.

Cons:
As per the whole HFI range, the comfort isn’t as good as some alternatives and the build quality isn’t spectacular. Also, the significant difference between amped and un-amped performance means an amp is a must.

Verdict:
A great headphone for the dollars. I listened to some $1000+ phones today and kept coming back to the fact that I couldn’t justify the extra for the type of listening I do and for the minimal difference in sound. I’m not suggesting the more expensive headphones aren’t better, but the 680s do such a great job across the board that they’re ahead of most other closed cans in terms of bang-for-buck.
I’d highly recommend a listen to these if you have a device that will drive them effectively. I’m personally looking at something like a Nu Force uDAC-2 (approx. $200), but it takes the 680s up to around $500.

Audio Technica ATH-A900
(approx. $250)

Audio Technica ATH-A900

As a massive fan of the open style ATH-AD900s, it made sense to listen to their closed equivalent, the A900s. I’d heard that they have a “darker” sound, but didn’t yet know exactly what that meant – I had my theories, but it’s a very subjective term. I know understand exactly what those people meant. The top-end and bottom-end are just like the AD900s – crisp, detailed and awesome, but then came vocals… The closed design of the A900s make the mid-range sound very closed-in. The mid-range and vocals were muffled and crowded – not very enjoyable.

Pros: Beautifully made and insanely comfortable (like all similar style Audio Technicas with their 3D fitting system)

Cons:
The mid-range is so muffled and crowded that it completely smothers the rest of the sound – such a shame.

Verdict:
There are much better options out there for the price. I would take the Shure SRH840s anytime over the A900s.

Beyer-Dynamic T50p
(approx. $300)

Beyer-Dynamic T50p

I had seen these online, but knew little about them other than funky looks and a good, reliable brand. Straight out of the box they were the most impressive in terms of build quality and style of all the phones listed in this “At a Glance”. The only comparable quality of build is the Audio Technicas, but the T50ps are funkier in style (but that’s also a matter of taste).

Before talking about the sound of these it’s important to note that they were straight out of the box with no burn-in or general play time whatsoever so the following description needs to be taken with a grain of salt as it were…

The T50ps had an interesting sound signature. While detailed and neutral, there was something I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but after a few tracks I think the mid-range is a bit too forward and the top-end not quite forward enough. The bass is sublime for a small on-ear headphone. It’s tight, but with plenty of mass and presence and this continues up into the mids, but somewhere that outstanding start falls away. The T50ps reminded me of the AKG Q460 headphones which I’ll be reviewing very soon. They’re probably a touch better than the Q460s, but still lack a little sparkle at the top-end.

Pros:
They’re sexy, made of metal (i.e. high quality) and have a quality sound if you like warm, mellow signatures.

Cons:
The lack of sparkle at the top-end was a deal-breaker for me, but that was the only issue I could find so if you like the sound signature you’ll love these phones!

Verdict:
Probably a great option for some depending on your music and sound tastes. I’d love to own a pair from a design and quality point of view, but just not sure if I can justify it when I don’t like the sound style. That said, I haven’t had a chance to try them with slightly boosted treble.

At a Glance Overview

After plenty of listening and switching between sources and music tracks, I definitely gravitated towards 2 options. The Shure SRH840s and the Ultrasone HFI 680s were clearly the best of the bunch. For non-amplified use I think the Shures are a winner. For amplified use, the Ultrasones take a slight lead. The tricky thing now is that I haven’t yet auditioned the Ultrasone HFI 780s, but will do so before purchasing because they’re easier to drive from a non-amplified source. I’ll keep you posted…

When Branding Meets Audio – Not Always a Good Mix

The other day I was in an electronics retailer that has a dedicated headphone room with plenty of models for demo. It’s a great idea, but I was disappointed with the lack of quality in their range. However, they were stocking a range I hadn’t seen before – House of Marley. I was instantly interested because of the status and legacy of Bob Marley, but I was equally wary because of my past experiences with musician branded headphones. Just because a musician’s name is used, it doesn’t mean the sound quality is top notch.

I was curious to check out the Marley range and listened to 3 models, the Destiny TTR, the Stir It Up and the Exodus. This isn’t a full review of any of them, but some initial impressions that might help.

Destiny TTR

House of Marley: Destiny TTR

My first impression of these phones was “wow!” Picking these up, they’re beautifully made with high quality metals and great design touches like the rasta red/green/yellow around the edge. The sound was punchy, the bass was tight and solid, but not overpowering and the detail was surprisingly good.

The TTRs are an active headphone – that little bezel you can see on the side of the phones is actually an on/off switch for the active amplification and noise cancellation circuit. The active style is what gives these phones their great sound signature and presence, but it also created the 2 issues that caused me to walk away a little unsatisfied.

Issue 1: In moments of silence I could hear a definite buzz from the circuit. I can’t confirm if the buzz was from the in-store source hookup or if it was the headphones themselves. If you’re looking at these headphones, just do a check with your music player plugged in, but the volume very low. If you can hear a buzz you might want to explore other options.

Issue 2: This is not a fault of the TTRs alone, but more a symptom of active noise cancellation. In order to stop us hearing the world around us, cancellation circuits use a microphone to capture the outside sounds and pump their exact opposite directly into our ears. As you know, -3 + 3 = 0 so the result we hear is nothing (or close to nothing), but that doesn’t mean there’s no sound happening. To create the pseudo-silence, the headphones are actually creating a certain level of sound pressure and this is my issue. If you have no music playing and switch the TTRs on and off you can feel a massive change in the pressure applied to your ears. For me, this pressure becomes fatiguing in time and I find the overall experience quite uncomfortable. I would choose a good pair of in-ear (noise isolating) earphones any day over noise cancellation.

Summary: As I said, this isn’t a full review, but the TTRs had a great sound signature and were fun to listen to across a range of music. They aren’t audiophile level by any stretch, but if you’re looking for good sound in a noise-cancelling headphone that looks awesome and is beautifully built then the TTRs could be just right. (Don’t forget to check for that buzz before you buy.)

Stir It Up

House of Marley: Stir it Up

Of all the Marley range, these were the ones I wanted to love. What looks yellow in the picture here is actually a beautiful real wood trim on each earphone cup. They feel like high quality headphones and they fit beautifully – comfortable with a good seal over the ear. Unfortunately the sound totally let me down. The mids were too forward and the sound felt muffled and stifled. The bass was solid, but there was just not enough treble detail and power to cut through the “mud”.

These are probably a great headphone for certain music styles where the high end isn’t a feature (R&B, hip hop, etc.), but I didn’t have time to test this specifically so give them a listen if you like those styles and please let me know your thoughts.

Summary: Great design and build quality, but disappointing sound signature. Not enough treble for the sound to come alive.

Exodus

House of Marley: Exodus

The Exodus phones were my last stop in the audition process because I wasn’t as much a fan of their design. That said, they’re still cooler than most other headphones I’ve seen. The top headband is wood with a second soft leather band that sits on your head. So far so good, but then the cups are covered in leather with a soft fabric over the hole to the drivers and here-in lies the problem.

When I put these headphones on, there was a slight bit of fiddling required to get the right stretch from the elasticised headband, but once that was adjusted correctly it was fine. What wasn’t fine was the feeling of the cups against my ear. The opening to the drivers has a rough edge. The leather’s soft so it’s not scratchy or anything, but I found the sensation of the flat surface against my ear was quite uncomfortable. I felt like the headphones weren’t fitted properly and I kept wanting to adjust them.

Another issue I had was that straight out of the sealed box there was a fault in the left earphone. There was some sound coming from the left, but not much. It sounded like the effect created if the headphone jack isn’t quite plugged in properly. All of that’s unfortunate, because it sounded like the sound quality would have been quite nice otherwise.

Based on the right side only (and a strange distant echo from the left) it seemed like the Exodus headphones have a really balanced sound with nice detail, but a smooth signature overall. The bass was still punchy and solid, but there didn’t seem to be any of the muddiness of the Stir It Up model.

Overall: These are probably worth checking out if you’re after a funky pair of phones with a good balanced sound, but make sure you try them on before you buy them. The ear cup design might be comfortable for some, but it wasn’t for me. Also, be aware of the cable quality. It may be that the fault I experienced is a sign of things to come in the life of these headphones. It could be a one off fault or it could be that the cable design is the weak link in the toughness of these phones.