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

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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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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

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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

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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

Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 3… Finale

Welcome to the final installment of my 3 part series of posts about the pros and cons of compressed audio. If you haven’t read from the beginning, it’d be a good idea. Here’s a link: Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 1

By the end of Part 2 you hopefully have an understanding of the process of compression (i.e. removing sounds that we theoretically won’t hear) and also the impact that this removal has on the overall “picture” created by the sound. For this final part of the article, you need to keep this concept of a musical “picture” in mind because this final concept is all about the hidden magic within the picture, not the individual, identifiable details.

Harmonics

You might have heard of harmonics before. If you’ve played certain musical instruments (particularly stringed instruments), you might have even deliberately created pure harmonics. If you haven’t heard of harmonics, don’t worry – here’s a short explanation.

Anytime you play an instrument that uses a string or air to create sound (i.e. just about any instrument other than electronic synthesizers), you are creating harmonics. Harmonics are the sympathetic vibrations that occur along with the note that you’re creating. Have you ever run your finger around the rim of a glass to create a musical note? That’s the same concept. Your finger running on the edge of the glass creates vibrations. If you get the speed of your finger movements correct, the vibrations you create, match the natural vibration frequency of the glass. As a result, the whole glass vibrates together and forms a beautiful clear note. Different glasses will vibrate at different speeds of movement  and will create different notes as a result. This is the concept of harmonics.

If you were to walk up to a piano and strike the key known as “Middle C”, you would hear a note – just one single note, but that note will have a quality very different to the same note on another piano or on a violin. The reason for this is the creation of resonance and harmonics. To explain this, I’m going to talk about the note called “A” which is a few notes above “Middle C”. I’m using the “A” because it makes the maths easier.

If you now strike the “A” you’ll hear a single note once again. This time, the note will sound higher than the previous “C”. What’s actually happening though is that your ear is receiving vibrations in the ear and these vibrations are moving 440 times every second (440 Hz). However, there are also other vibrations going on and the majority of these vibrations are directly related to the 440 Hz we began with. As the “A” string inside the piano vibrates, it creates waves of vibration. The loudest of these move 440 times per second, but it also creates other waves moving 880 times, 1760 times, 3520 times per second, etc.

Every note created by an acoustic instrument naturally creates these harmonics which go up in doubling increments (i.e. like 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.) Old synthesizers sounded particularly fake because they didn’t recreate these harmonics and the output sounded flat and lifeless. Newer synthesizers create harmonics artificially and have come closer to the sound of the real thing, but there’s still a degree of difference created by the subtleties that can be created by acoustic instruments. A slight difference in strike pressure on a piano, plucking/strumming strength on a guitar or force of air through a trumpet can create a significantly different tone as a result of the different range of vibrations it creates. All of these subtleties are the “magic” that make music so special and exciting.

A quick note: this blog is not an anti electronic music. Electronic instruments (i.e. synthesizers, drum machines, etc.) can create amazing music which is impossible with traditional acoustic instruments. The discussion of acoustic versus electronic instruments is designed purely to illustrate the importance of keeping harmonics where they were originally intended/recorded.

Harmonics, Subtleties & Compression

In reading the section above, you might have wondered why you’ve never heard these harmonics. You might even choose to put on your favourite CD and try to listen for them. You can actually hear these harmonics if you listen carefully, but the key thing to recognise here is that we aren’t consciously aware of them in normal circumstances. The harmonics and subtleties happen “behind the scenes” of the music and are rarely noticed by the casual listener or anyone who is not actively listening for harmonics.

If you now think back to my previous discussion of compression and the removal of sounds that we theoretically don’t hear, you might see the connection. The first things be “compressed” (i.e. removed) are the harmonics and subtle, quiet sounds that create the finest details and tonal qualities of the music. To the casual ear, nothing seems to be missing, but play the same song compressed and uncompressed through good speakers and you might notice a difference that you can’t quite put your finger on. Here’s another visual example.

The following picture is a hi-resolution (1900 x 1200) desktop wallpaper image provided with Microsoft Windows 7. I’ve used it because it has a certain magic about it in terms of its depth and detail.

The next version of that image is at a lower resolution of 800 x 500 pixels (a bit like a lower bit-rate of compression).

Notice there’s a certain level of the “magic” missing from the second image? It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what’s missing, but the image isn’t as instantly captivating and engaging to the eye. It almost looks flatter somehow – less bright and alive.

Here’s one last version at 600 x 375 pixels, making it even lower resolution and stealing more of the “magic”.

Are you seeing a difference? Don’t worry if you’re not. Go back now and take a close look at the textures of the character’s face and the stitching on his costume. As the resolution drops, so does the detail. See it? That’s exactly what’s happening to your music.

Compressed Music in Real Life

Although it’s probably clear by now that my preference is always for uncompressed music (known as lossless music because no detail/information is lost), it’s not always practical. Understanding compression allows you to choose what suits your needs best. Here are some factors to consider when choosing your level of compression (or choosing no compression):

  • How much space do you have for your music on your computer, device hard drive, iPod, etc? You’ll need to use compression if your space is limited and you want to store a large number of tracks. Here you need to weigh up quality, quantity and space. You can consider increasing storage space, decreasing the quantity of tracks or increasing the compression (and therefore decreasing the quality of the music).
  • Where and how do you listen to your music? If you listen in noisy environments, at very low volume (i.e. background music only) or use low quality speakers/headphones then you might as well use slightly higher compression to maximise the quantity of tracks. The noisy environment issue can be overcome with in-ear earphones and noise cancelling earphones, but the other situations generally mean you can afford to sacrifice quality for quantity.
  • How much does it matter to you? After all, you’re the one doing the listening so if you’re happy with music at 128 kbps that’s all that matters. There’s no such thing as a right or wrong level of compression – it’s entirely up to you.

The best way to decide is actually quite simple. Take a well-recorded track (or two) that you really like and use your music player (iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.) to compress it in different ways. Next, listen to the different versions on your favourite headphones and/or speakers and decide what you’re happy with. Way up the differences you noticed between the different levels of compression and think about how much space you have to store music and then make a decision.

Summary

Compression is a fantastic tool for portable audio and convenience, but if you have no significant space restrictions, I highly recommend sticking with lossless audio (either Apple Lossless Audio Codec – ALAC, Free Lossless Audio Codec – FLAC or Windows Media Audio 9.2 Lossless). You never know when you might upgrade your speakers or headphones and even if you can’t hear a difference now, you might be amazed at the benefits you get with that next pair of speakers or the next set of headphones! Don’t give up the magic of the music unless you absolutely have too!