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.

Audio-gd NFB-5.2 DAC/Amp

For a while now I’ve been using a Creative X-Fi USB soundcard as my quality DAC and amplifier and it’s done an amazing job, but as a USB-powered amp, it was never going to shine with any truly high quality headphones. And so it came to pass that I decided on my first step into the realm of dedicated headphone amplifiers – the Audio-gd NFB-5.2

I decided on the NFB-5.2 because it is a combination digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. Reviews I read seemed good and it was available from the great crew at Addicted to Audio where I buy a bunch of my stuff (often with their wise advice).

Specifications

Signal to noise ratio:  119dB
Output power:  3500mW @ 25 ohm – 150mW @ 600 ohm
Output impedance:  2 ohm (headphone out)
Sampling support: 44.1kHz – 192kHz (16-bit or 24-bit)
Inputs:  Optical, Coaxial, USB

I’ll review the NFB-5.2 in 3 stages: first a quick overview, then the DAC, and then the amp.

Overview

The front panel of the Audio-gd NFB-5.2The NFB-5.2 is quite simple and that’s good. On the front of the unit is:

  • A power button (left)
  • Volume control (right)
  • 6mm stereo headphone socket with a securing system to keep the plug in place
  • Simple, 4 character, blue display
  • 4 control switches (under the display)

All of the buttons and the volume knob are brushed metal and the case of the unit is also all metal. It’s not super heavy, but seems very well built.

The 4 buttons under the display allow you to select different options.

Button 1: Filter

The “Filter” button lets you select from a number of filters used to remove unnecessary frequencies from the DAC output. It’s generally not something that you’ll notice in the sound and is used more to remove subtle digital artefacts and noise from the signal. I played around a bit and now leave my NFB-5.2 set to filter #6 which has creates an output that looks like this:

A graph showing the effect of filter #6

Filter #6 frequency response chart

As you can see, it only starts to affect the sound at around 20kHz and above – all frequencies which are beyond normal human hearing limits, but it should help to clean up the overall signal.

There’s a full listing of the possible filter options here.

Button 2: DAC/HP

This button has 4 options. Options 1 & 2 activate the headphone amplifier output either without (option 1) or with (option 2) the OP amp. Options 3 & 4 activate the RCA line outs on the back of the NFB-5.2 and allow you to use it as just a DAC with a separate dedicated amplifier. Once again the two options are for the OP amp being used or not used.

The OP Amp

The OP amp (OPA) is modular circuit that can colour the sound to suit individual tastes. Audio-gd supply the NFB-5.2 with their OPA-2134 model, but you can buy 3 different options as aftermarket (or custom) options. The 3 other OPAs offer neutral sound, warm sound, or dynamic sound. I hope to review the OPAs separately in the future.

In relation to the OPA-2134 that comes standard, my feeling is that it’s better left switched off. Engaging the OPA using setting 2 or 4 of the DAC/HP switch results in a flatter sound with less depth and a weaker sound stage. There’s really no improvement that I can discern.

Button 3: Gain

A very simple option here: “high” or “low”. The “high” option apparently adds a 12dB boost across the range (from the DAC, not the amp). When I’ve used high gain, the sound seems to become a bit edgy when compared to the equivalent volume on low gain. I’m sticking to the low gain option, but others might like the extra energy delivered by the high gain.

Button 4: Input

3 options here: USB, Optical or Coaxial. Very simple.

All work the same although I have read claims of slight sound variations between the 3 inputs. As I don’t have a source with all three outputs I can’t do a fair comparison.

NFB-5.2 DAC Stage

The DAC in the NFB-5.2 is really nice. I’ve run my Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 3 speakers using the line out of the NFB-5.2 and the sound is beautifully clean, well-layered with plenty of separation between instruments and creates a stunning sound stage through the BeoLab 3’s acoustic lenses.

As I’ve already explained, the filter system is a nice feature for those who are more technically inclined, but once it’s set you’ll probably not think about it ever again so essentially the NFB-5.2 DAC stage is a set-and-forget affair and it does a fine job.

The TE8802 Chip

The NFB-5.2 is an upgraded version of the NFB-5. The only difference (according to what I’ve read) is the inclusion of the TE8802 USB chip. The TE8802 allows for asynchronous transfer… yeah, I didn’t understand either!

What all this really means is that the NFB-5.2 should be less susceptible to minor issues with errors created by the USB chip in your computer slowing down or running inconsistently. In short, it’s a minor upgrade that’s nice to have, but likely won’t be a game changer.

Compatibility

The NFB-5.2 worked perfectly with my laptop running Windows 7 (64-bit) and MediaMonkey as my media player. The Audio-gd drivers, combined with the TE8802 chip allow the NFB-5.2 to work all the way up to 192kHz/24-bit. After doing some reading, I believe there’s no real benefit (and possibly some disadvantages) to using 192kHz output sampling so after testing that it worked, I reverted to 96kHz sound and it’s brilliant!

It’s worth noting that ASIO drivers seem to give the best sound and best compatibility with the NFB-5.2. I started out using WASAPI drivers, but they created some nasty cracks and pops from the computer (not the NFB-5.2’s error) and the sound seemed better when using ASIO.

NFB-5.2 Amp Stage

The amplifier in the NFB-5.2 is probably slightly weaker than the DAC. Where the DAC seems to be beautifully clean and crisp, the amp strikes me as just a touch soft around the edges. Perhaps it’s just a warm sound signature when I prefer a more analytical sound in general. There is also a hum that’s audible through my Shure SE535 LE in-ear monitors, but read on because that’s not necessarily a bad sign.

Power

The NFB-5.2 has plenty of grunt. I’ve just received my new Sennheiser HD650s (thanks Gavin!!) and the NFB-5.2 volume control only just clears 50% (on low gain) to drive the 300ohm HD650s. There are very few (if any) conventional headphones that the NFB-5.2 couldn’t drive. Obviously there will be much more expensive amps that will sound better, but it’s got the power.

Noise

This is a tricky one. With the 300ohm HD650s, the NFB-5.2 sounds pitch black – no noticeable noise. On more sensitive cans like the Audio Technica AD900s, there is some hiss when you turn the volume right up (>75%), but none at normal listening volumes. From this perspective, the NFB-5.2 is nice and clean.

What put me off slightly here is the noise I heard when I connected my Shure SE535 LEs. The Shures are hyper sensitive (119dB SPL/mW) and this showed up a background hum from the amplifier. The NFB-5.2 is listed with a 119dB signal to noise ratio so there’s a good chance the SE535 is picking up the end of the NFB-5.2’s quality control limits and that’s OK – it’s not meant for driving hyper-sensitive IEMs. The main reason for my concern was that the hum isn’t balanced – it is louder in the left channel. That might not mean anything, but I look forward to testing the SE535s on another NFB-5.2 next time I visit Addicted to Audio. Maybe the right channel on my unit is just slightly cleaner than Audio-gd’s quality control standards, but I’m keen to make sure there’s not an error somewhere in the circuitry of my amp.

NOTE: It’s important to note again here that an amp like the NFB-5.2 is not really designed to drive super sensitive, low impedance monitors like the SE535s so this isn’t a major flaw, but until I can test a few other similar amps, the unbalanced hum leaves a tiny doubt in my mind.

Control

The NFB-5.2 amp is really well controlled. My Ultrasone HFI-680s can be quite bassy and that can cause them to lose clarity and control if not well driven. The NFB-5.2 does a great job of tightening the bass and keeping it punchy and full.

I mentioned earlier that the NFB-5.2 amp seems slightly soft around the edges and while that is definitely the case, there is no doubt that it does an amazing job for the cost. It’s an incredibly good amp for the cost (especially when you get a great DAC built-in).

Overall Conclusion

Would I buy the NFB-5.2 again if I had my time over?

Absolutely!!

For less than US$400 plus shipping costs (about AU$480 here in Australia) you get a really nice DAC with a solid, powerful amp that will drive anything very well. The amp may tend towards being slightly warm, but it reveals detail well and definitely won’t create fatiguing edginess in the sound. Being able to bypass the amp in the future while maintaining the really nice DAC stage of the NFB-5.2 is a massive bonus!

The high gain mode seems to bring some unwanted distortion or edginess to the sound, but there’s so much power on tap that you don’t need to use it if you don’t want to.

Of course, there’s also the fact that you can buy different OP amps for around $40 each and modify the sound to your tastes. I look forward to trying these out and sharing some thoughts in a future blog post.

If you’re looking for a nice entry point into DACs and amps, the NFB-5.2 is an excellent option – well priced, clean, powerful and simple to use – I’d recommend it.

Shure SE535 Limited Edition

I have owned the HiFiMan Re0 earphones for about 2-3 years, but they recently succumbed to a broken connection inside one of the earphones so I decided it was time for an upgrade. It’s been quite a journey…

After much research, I had decided on a few potential options, but my decision came down to a question of availability. The fact that I could buy the 535s from my favourite audio shop made it a simple decision. Thanks as always to George and the team at Addicted to Audio for their assistance with advice, comparisons and of course selling me all these wonderful goodies!!

The contents of the SE535-SE box

The 535 LEs come with all the same accessories as the standard 535s, but they DO sound different. The key difference is a slightly stronger top end and that improves the staging produced by the earphones, but back to the accessories…

The 535 LEs come with a grey, detachable cable (more on that later), an airline plug adapter, an inline volume control for loud sources that need attenuation (e.g. airoplanes), 3 different sizes of foam tips, 3 different sizes of silicon tips, a tri-flange silicon tip and a yellow foam tip. There’s also a small, hard carry case just big enough for the phones themselves, and a 3.5mm to 6mm adapter for plugging the phones into amplifiers.

Read the rest of this review over at the new Passion for Sound site. It’s sexier and has lots of great new content coming soon.

 

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

Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi HD USB

This little beast is the Creative Digital Music Premium HD (in Australia). It’s also known as the X-Fi HD in other parts of the world. I’m going to call it the X-Fi HD for the rest of this post because it’s quicker and easier.

Creative designed this to match up with medium-high impedance audiophile headphones and I bought it to drive a set of Ultrasone HFI 680 headphones which are moderate impedance at 75 ohm and stretched the capabilities of my laptop.

My laptop is a Sony Vaio C-series with a Realtek HD onboard soundcard – not bad, but also not highly amplified. It drives my 35 ohm Audio-Technica AD900s quite well and is reasonable with my 64 ohm HiFi-Man Re0s, but it struggles mightily with the 680s.

Generally, the most obvious issue with high impedance headphones is a lack of volume, but that wasn’t where had trouble. My problems came in the form of sound quality. When auditioning the 680s I found the sound really flat and dull compared to other lower impedance headphones, but only when driven direct from the laptop. Adding an amplifier brought the 680s to life, but didn’t involve any increase in volume.

Adding the X-FI HD definitely had the desired effect. Most noticeably, the soundstage grew dramatically. Music sounds open and lively and all of the subtle details are beautifully present and clear. Basically, the only differences it makes are subtle. It doesn’t colour the sound or change it in any way, it just opens it up and lets it live.

The X-Fi HD is small and light – about 6″ x 4″ (at a guess – I haven’t measured it) and about 1 inch thick. The front has just two 6mm jacks (headphone and microphone) and a volume control. There’s a blue LED on the top at the front which shows when the X-FI is connected and when it’s muted (flashes). On the back is a mini USB socket for the data connection to your computer as well as optical in and out sockets as well as analogue lines out and in. There’s also an earth connection for turntable connections.

The software supplied with the X-Fi HD is comprehensive, but I can’t comment on its use because I’m not a fan of sound altering effects like stadium mode and jazz club mode, etc. They sound fairly convincing, but I prefer the sound to be reproduced exactly as it was recorded.

How it Performs

The X-Fi HD instantly transformed my listening experience subtly, but significantly. The soundstage got wider and the separation of sounds got better. That’s really it though. If you are using low bit rate audio (i.e. 256 kbps or less) then there’s probably not much point in buying this device, but if you’re listening to high quality audio with all of the original recording quality intact (i.e. original CDs, DVDs, or lossless audio) then the X-Fi HD could transform your computer into a top-notch source.

As a portable option for excellent, detailed and natural sound, the X-Fi HD is an awesome option for a little over $100 (in Australia). I’m not suggesting that it out-performs more expensive DACs and amplifiers, but for a low cost, portable option it will be hard to beat given that it also gives you the option to input other sources for high quality digital recording of vinyl, etc.

Some Specs

  • The X-Fi HD supports 24-bit 96Hz sound for both recording and playback.
  • Signal to noise ratio is 114dB (through headphone output)

Your Natural Equaliser

A few years ago, I had a problem with wax build-up in my ear (I know, it’s a bit gross, but I have no other way to clearly explain this). Anyway, after putting up with muffled sound in my ear for a few days and noticing it getting worse, I figured it was time to go to the doctor. The doctor made short work of the wax and I soon had squeaky clean ear canals again. So what’s that got to do with equalisers?

I noticed something amazing once my ears were cleaned out – I could hear better than ever before. This was not just a case of it seeming better than I was used to after a couple of muffled days, it was a significant improvement to the details I could hear in sounds. It was like everything had been turned up a few notches – I had bionic hearing!

Needless to say, the changes to my hearing soon passed, but it showed me something important – our brain and our ears adapt significantly over time. Having had the volume and detail levels of my hearing suppressed for a few days, my brain had adjusted its sensitivity to various incoming information, particularly in the upper frequencies that were more affected by the blockage. Once the blockage was removed, these higher frequencies remained more sensitive and gave me the sensation of super-accurate hearing.

When it comes to audio, this is important to recognise. If you’re listening to a new set of speakers or a new set of headphones, it’s important to give your brain time to adjust. Case in point was my recent purchase of some new headphones. Having decided to buy the Ultrasone HFI 680s as a closed alternative to my Audio Technica ATH-AD900s, I spent a lot of time listening to the 680s and I soon learned to love their sound. So much so, that returning to my AD900s left me a little underwhelmed – I suddenly really missed the bass of the 680s and longed for that warmer, fuller sound. And then I realised – I had adapted. My brain had said, “Oh, is this the new ‘norm’? I’ll just adjust to compensate.” Returning to the AD900s which have a more detailed, less bassy sound, my brain said “Where’s the bass gone – there’s a big hole in the sound!” But as I listened to the AD900s for longer, the bass gradually returned and my 680s then started to sound overly bassy when I returned to them.

The interesting and amazing thing is that, once I switched back and forth a couple of times, my brain got quicker at adjusting and I found both sets of headphones more enjoyable almost straight away after switching. It’s like the brain creates its own set of situational EQs that it can switch between when it knows you’re using particular earphones, speakers, or listening in a particular environment.

For music lovers, this is important to recognise. When auditioning new gear, be sure to give yourself plenty of time for your brain’s EQ to adjust. Also, be aware that someone else’s opinion on their favourite speakers or headphones will be coloured by their brain’s EQ settings. What they find warm, but detailed, you might find muddy, especially if you’re coming from a different sounding piece of gear. In time you might adjust to the new gear’s sound, but it may also be beyond the range of adjustment. Our brain still needs to be able to differentiate sounds so it doesn’t try to make everything sound equal, just to balance things out to sound how we believe it should.

Generally, I find it takes up to half an hour of listening to really adapt to a new sound depending on how different it is. Make sure you give yourself that time when auditioning or adapting to anything new or you might just miss out on something wonderful!

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 Review

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 open style headphones

Audio Technica ATH-AD900 open style headphones

The ATH-AD900s are a well-known headphone made in Japan. They’re recognised as a clean, accurate and possibly under-priced headphone. I very recently purchased a pair and they’ve really opened my eyes in a number of ways.

On first listen, the AD900s sounded a bit “thin” for my liking. I’m definitely not a bass-head, but I was worried I would miss the presence of a solid kick in the bass. As I’ve listened to the AD900s more and more I’ve actually found that I’m loving the clean and possibly slightly understated bass from these phones.

In my article about compressed audio I discussed the phenomenon of “masking”. Masking is what happens when a loud sound prevents us from hearing a quiet sound. I’d never thought about it in relation to speakers or headphones before, but I’m starting to think it plays a part in the detail of any reproduction device. I am hearing details in music with the AD900s that I’ve never heard through other high quality speakers and phones I’ve used. That’s not to say the AD900s are the best phones on the planet, but they are definitely very, very good. What makes them so good is their balance. Because the different frequencies are so nicely balanced, the bass doesn’t overshadow the mids and treble and vice versa. There’s no harshness in the top end to get in the way of the rest of the music and the vocals don’t jump out over and above the instrumentation. Everything is exactly where it belongs.

It’s probably important to note that the AD900s are an open style headphone which means that even though they cover your whole ear, they don’t cut out any sound from the world around you. It also means that people around you can hear what you’re listening to pretty clearly so they’re not a good choice for open offices or situations where others don’t want to hear your music.

Let’s look at the individual characteristics of the headphones:

Quick Specs

Speaker Driver : 53mm
Frequency Range : 5 – 35,000Hz
Power Handling : 700mW
Impedance : 35 ohms

Bass

Attack: The attack from the AD900s is beautiful, but understated. They’re a very sensitive earphone with a relatively high impedance which makes them very responsive (a bit like a powerful sports car with excellent breaks). They go fast when needed and stop just as quickly. The result to your ears is accuracy and energy. The AD900s sound exciting and lively at all frequencies and this means a good attack in the bass. During Wayman Tisdale’s “Take the Lord Along with You”, the bass is crisp and sharp with plenty of detail. There’s no muddiness or lag in the bass – it’s agile. However, there will be a lack of punch for some people and this means you don’t feel as much of the attack as you might like. The AD900s are probably more accurate than some of the more exciting earphones around, but that does mean they lack the up-front excitement created by the feeling of some good, hard-hitting bass.

Rating: 7.5 / 10

Mass: As you’ve probably already gathered, this could be the one weak point of the AD900s if you like bass, but this is where audio becomes such a personal affair. I love the fact that the AD900s are so realistic. If a track was recorded with lots of bass, the AD900s reproduce it, but they also shine a very bright light on tracks recorded without much bass. The result can be a slightly thin-sounding experience. Even though that’s more a reflection of the recording and engineering of the track, many headphones will lend a little extra bass to music and cover these shortcomings.

I tried listening to “Halftime” by Nas and there’s plenty of bass, but it’s not thumping on my eardrums like an angry neighbour. It’s very present, but not overpowering and I know some people enjoy the hard-hitting thump.

Rating: 5 / 10

Vocals / Mids

It’s almost difficult to review the mids and vocals from the AD900s because they’re exactly what they should be and perfectly balanced with everything else. They don’t stick out as a flat spot or a highlight. The mids and vocals are smooth, realistic and perfectly placed within the overall musical picture. There’s really nothing to report (in a good way) – they’re perfect.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Detail

Wow. If only I could give them a 12 out of 10. Detail is the AD900’s party trick. Their accuracy and agility is simply awesome so you hear every tiny detail in all of your music. Even driven straight from an iPod (5th Generation), the accuracy is outstanding. The iPod has to run at nearly 100% volume, but there’s still a little headroom to turn it up if necessary and the quality is still excellent.

When listening to “Learn to Love” by Harry Connick, Jr. there are some minor riffs and fills from the backing orchestra and a Hammond organ. On other earphones I’ve used, these riffs tend to get lost in the mix, but on the AD900s you can hear even the subtlest textures and details within the backing instrumentation – it’s quite an experience.

One of the best things about the level of detail the AD900s provide is that the music is exciting and energetic. There are so many different sounds and textures going on that you can really explore the music’s twists and turns. Even tracks you used to find boring can surprise you with a new detail or texture you’ve never heard before. This is true in all music, but it’s particularly noticeable in classical music. Listening to “Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen, Op.20” and “Capriccio Italien Op. 45” is quite amazing as you hear every pluck and pop and squeak from every instrument in the orchestra. I’m not a classical fan as such, but I love hearing the odd orchestral track just to experience all the textures and details I can hear through the AD900s.

Rating: 8.9 / 10

Staging

Staging was what initially attracted me to the AD900s. Other reviews I’d read suggested that the AD900s offered a broad and detailed soundstage and they really do. If you close your eyes while listening to a well recorded piece of music, the sound seems to come from a space outside of the confines of your head and the headphones. All that space also means that it’s easy to separate where different sounds are coming from.

I use Capriccio Italien Op. 45 to test for staging and placement of sounds because there are lots of quiet moments with individual groups in the orchestra playing. The AD900s paint a perfect picture of the orchestra. You can hear exactly where the horn section is placed and you can hear that they’re further away from you than the strings. The french horns are slightly to the right while the oboes and clarinets are more centred, but still slightly to the left. The detail is beautifully clear. I have heard headphones with slightly better staging (like the Ultrasone Edition 8s), but the AD900s are still extremely good, especially for the price.

Rating: 8.5 / 10

Overall

For around $300 you’ll have a very hard time finding a better pair of headphones in terms of accuracy, staging and comfort. I regularly wear these headphones all day (literally) and actually miss them when I take them off because they are SO comfortable. I have a shaved head so there’s no hair to add padding for headphones and most become uncomfortable in time, but the AD900s are hands-down the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn on my head (including hats and beanies)!

If you love bass from a variety of music, don’t jump at the AD900s until you’ve had a good listen to a range of tracks to see if the “realistic” bass is enough for you. If accuracy, detail and clarity is your thing, do yourself a favour and check these out. If you’re not sure what you like you should definitely give the AD900s a try, but make sure you listen to them for a little while on a range of tracks before making your mind up. Most of us aren’t used to the kind of unbiased sound they give and you may feel a little underwhelmed at first, but give them some time, close your eyes and explore the music a bit – you might be surprised.

All-in-all I just love these headphones and often find myself turning to these instead of high quality speaker setups. I love the accuracy, detail and intimacy of the sound. If you’re buying headphones and have around $300 to spend you should definitely check these out. Even if you’re spending significantly more than $300, take a listen to the ATH-AD900s because they will embarrass many more expensive models.

Overall Rating: 7 / 10

Additional Note: The model below the AD900s is the ATH-AD700 and although Audio Technica completely missed the mark on the colour scheme (purple and gold), they’re an excellent headphone. There is absolutely no doubt that the AD900s are significantly better and are worth the extra $$$. The build quality and sound quality are both upgraded on the AD900s, but check out the AD700s if the AD900s are more than you want to spend.