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.

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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.

Sennheiser HD650

For a while now I’ve been enjoying great sound from a few different headphones. The problem with great sound though is that every time you get better equipment in one area, it makes you want to upgrade in other areas. That’s been the result of my purchase of the HFI-680s and then, more-so, the Shure SE535 LEs.

I loved my Audio Technica ATH-AD900s, but it was time for them to find a loving new home and for me to return to Sennheiser, a brand I’d previously sworn off due to some poor experiences at the lower end of their range.

I was offered the HD650s by a good friend of mine who is very knowledgeable in the world of head-fi. In addition to the stock 650s, he also had an after market cable for them. The cable is custom-made with silver-plated copper. There are plenty of options available on eBay and from companies like Cardas and Toxic Cables. Custom cables will generally set you back a couple of hundred dollars on top of the cost of the headphones, but they are often worth the cost.

To read this review, please head over to the new Passion for Sound website. It’s sexier and there’s lots of great new content. Don’t worry, the link will take you straight to this article.

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…