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

10050047

For:

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

Against:

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

Would I buy these?

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

Alternatives for the Price (or Less)

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

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

A Simple Guide to Equalisers

Equalisers are an interesting topic. Many people will steer clear of them while others love the option to customise every song, album, pair of speakers or pair of headphones to their own personal tastes. To help you make an informed decision about whether to use an equaliser and how to use an equaliser, here are some key facts.

Impact on Sound Quality

Firstly, electronic equalisers like those in iTunes and in your iPod will generally reduce the quality of the sound. Depending on the headphones or speakers you’re using and depending on how loud you listen to the music, you may not notice the difference so don’t necessarily write off the use of an equaliser based on this fact – you need to decide based on the merits for and against. For some people, a slight reduction in quality might be worth the improvement to the overall tone of the sound. There are also some ways to use an equaliser that are less likely to impact on the sound quality – I’ll discuss these later.

The main reason that equalisers decrease sound quality is the power required to boost audio output by even a small amount. A 3dB increase to the sound (or selected frequency) actually takes double the power! This generally means that you’re pushing the limits of the in-built amplifier of your computer or portable player which leads to a thing called clipping. Without going into detail, clipping refers to the top of the sound wave being cut off because the amplifier doesn’t have the power to create it. It’s a little bit like accelerating in your car until the engine hits the redline and the power disappears, resulting in a rapid loss of performance and potential damage to the equipment.

To minimise the impact on sound quality, you can employ a technique that’s often referred to as subtractive equalising. All this means is that you drag the sliders down rather than push the sliders up – I’ll explain.

iTunes EQ

See the image on the right? That’s the standard iTunes equaliser panel and it’s typical of most EQ setups where the sliders are sitting in the middle at “0dB” meaning that there is no change to the standard amplification of each frequency. If you move a slider up by 1 “notch”, you’re increasing that frequency by 3dB and asking the amplifier to provide double the power at that frequency. The result is generally distortion around that frequency. It’s much easier to set an EQ by increasing the frequencies you want more of, but you’ve probably gathered that this will hurt the sound quality.

EQ settings from -12dB

Here’s the alternative: rather than increasing the frequencies you want more of, decrease all the rest! The simplest way to do this is to start by dragging all of your EQ sliders down to the bottom (-12dB). At this time you might need to turn up the master volume of your device to get the sound back to an enjoyable level, but this is fine because the master volume doesn’t decrease quality. Now you’re ready to adjust your EQ. Start using the sliders to increase the frequencies you need up to a maximum of 0dB. Avoid going above 0dB for any frequency because it will instantly decrease sound quality.

All sliders increased (Maximum 0dB)

Once you’ve got the sound the way you want it, try to increase the sliders so that the shape of your EQ stays the same, but so that the highest slider is right on 0dB (see the last EQ image).

Note: one slight issue you might face with this technique is a lack of maximum volume. If your headphones or speakers are hard to drive and you need nearly 100% volume to get the sound you want, this technique may lead to insufficient sound levels. If that’s the case, you might want to look into extra amplification or different headphones or speakers.

The final dilemma you might be facing is which slider to increase to get the sound you want. The next section should help…

What Does Each Frequency Change?

So you’ve opened your EQ settings and you’re ready to perfect the sound signature for your ears only, but where to start? Which slider to slide?

In the end, it’s all experimentation for the fine details, but here are some clues about where to start. (I’m using the iTunes frequency points as a reference to make it easy for comparison.) I’d recommend using the following information by listening to a range of tracks that you’re familiar with. See if you can identify what’s “missing” from the sound based on the descriptions below and then add a little at a time to see if it helps.

32 Hz – This is subwoofer territory – the bottom end of the bass range. As much as we all love it, sometimes it’s better to drop it out or leave it flat if your speakers can’t this depth of bass. Bass is difficult for amplifiers to sustain so you can give your amp some breathing room by dropping this away if you can’t hear it anyway.

64 Hz – This is the part of the bass that we feel as much as hear. This is a great frequency to boost if you want to feel a bit more bass vibration. Increasing this will give your music more kick at the bottom end.

125 Hz – This is musical bass. If you’re listening to melodic bass guitar riffs, this is where the action is. It’s a good frequency to increase to emphasise the musicality and accuracy in bass rather than the rumble or the mass of the bass.

250 Hz – Although there’s no simple definition of bass vs midrange vs treble, I think of 250 Hz as the crossover point between bass and midrange. At 250 Hz we’re starting to increase the bottom end of male vocals and the lower range of instruments like guitars. Beware though – increasing the midrange sliders can very quickly make your music sound muffled or “canned” (like it’s being played through a tin can”. I would rarely increase this frequency, but might consider reducing it slightly to open the sound up a bit and make it more “airy” and spacious.

500 Hz – Like 250 Hz, 500 Hz is the realm of muffled sound. It covers male vocals and the middle of instrumentation. It’s impact on most music is a sense of muffling – like you’ve covered everything in cotton wool.

1 kHz – This is the realm of vocals, instruments like guitars and saxophones and the snare drum. It can bring brightness to the midrange, but can also start making the sound a bit tinny.

2 kHz – Around 1 – 2 kHz is where we start venturing into the realm of treble. We’re still in the world of vocals and instruments here, but we’re getting towards the top-end so it’ll cause vocals to sound a bit more nasal and increase the perception of the texture of voices – things like breathiness and raspiness. It also can make sound very tinny.

4 kHz – This is the frequency that’s most prominent in sounds like “sh” and “ssssss”. It’s also a part of sounds like cymbal hits and the upper end of a snare drum’s sound. Adding emphasis to the 4 kHz range can very quickly make music harsh on the ears and unpleasant to listen to. That said, using it carefully can bring clarity and brightness to vocals and percussion.

8 kHz – This frequency is pure treble. This is what is most prominent if you turn the “treble” dial up. It influences the very upper end of sounds like “sh” and “ssss” and it has a major impact on percussion such as snares and cymbals. It is great to use to add brightness to the sound, but can also get uncomfortable if overused.

16 kHz – Given that 20 kHz is considered the upper end of human hearing, this is obviously the pointy end of the treble band. It mostly affects cymbals and similar sounds, but it also picks up the brightness and detail in the texture of certain instruments. For example, increasing the 16 kHz slider (and/or the 8 kHz slider to a degree) will enhance the sound of the plectrum hitting the strings of a strummed guitar. Like the 8 kHz slider, the 16 kHz slider is a great way to add brightness and tends to be more gentle on our ears. That’s not to say it’s not just as loud, but generally it doesn’t sound as harsh. Incidentally, 16 kHz is also at the end of the hearing range where we lose our hearing first so we might appreciate a slight boost to this area as we get older and lose our hearing.

I hope this has helped you to get more from your music collection, favourite speakers or portable player!

Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my series of posts about the pros and cons of compressed audio. If you haven’t read Part 1, it’d be a good idea. Here’s a link: Understanding MP3s (and other compressed music) – Part 1

Wielding the Eraser

I explained in Part 1 that compression means pulling out sounds that we won’t actually hear, but think about this… The music is like a painting that we “see” with our ears. Compressing music is the equivalent to taking an eraser to the Mona Lisa. It’s like saying, “No-one will notice this brush stroke of stray colour or this tiny bit of shading.” Perhaps that’s true and, to a degree, no-one would notice, but at some point the whole painting’s just going to lose something. It’ll lose a little bit of soul. Sure, you might not pick exactly which parts are missing, but you’ll know something’s not right. Here’s an example:

Notice how the sky in the second image looks unnatural and full of lines? That’s because the process of compressing has removed some of the subtle shades of blue and replaced them with wider bands of other shades. For example, let’s number the different shades 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4. During the compression process we would replace shade 1.2 with a second band of 1.1 and replace 1.4 with a second band of 1.3. Now that blue sky would be made of bands of shades 1.1, 1.1, 1.3, 1.3. You can see the evidence of this above in the second image.

So looking at the example photos, it’s clear that they’re both the same photo, but if you had to choose one to print and frame, I’m guessing you’d choose the first one because it’s closer to real life and therefore more pleasing to the eye. The same goes for music.

Think of music as a complex bunch of vibrations making a particular range of patterns. Any little detail you remove from those vibrations will permanently alter the overall “picture”. You’ll still recognise the sound or the song, but it won’t actually sound identical to the original.

Let’s talk about the ear again. Remember my description of how we hear? The ear perceives music like the eyes perceive a painting. You take it all in at once, you don’t pick out a particular colour here and a particular texture there, you just see it as a picture. When we compress sound we permanently alter the “picture” as if we had taken to it with an eraser. To our ears, the result is no different to the photo above on the right. It might not be as dramatic (depending on the level of compression), but it’s essentially the same. You don’t notice a loss of individual sounds, you notice a loss of overall quality and realism.

Here’s one final visual version to show you what I mean. The following charts are spectrograms that show sound as colour. The darker the colour, the louder the sound and the higher up the colour appears, the higher pitch the sound is. A bass guitar shows up down the bottom while a violin shows up further towards the top. There are 2 lines in each chart – these are the left and right stereo channels.

Spectogram - lossless

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - no compression

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - moderate compression

"This is How a Heart Breaks" - mid-high compression (128 kbps)

Notice the density of the yellow and orange colours reduces as you get more compression? The more blue you see, the less of the musical “picture” is still intact. You might also notice that there is more variety and clarity in the colours on the top chart and the colours all get more “blurry” as you move down the charts. That’s the effect of averaging things out. If you look at the first spectrogram and then the second, you might notice that the second one looks like a slightly out-of-focus copy of the first one.

By the time we get to 128 kbps, nearly every high frequency sound is removed. That’s because we lose those hearing at these frequencies first and are less likely to notice the missing sound… or at least that’s the theory. The key thing to notice here is that the musical pictures are different. This is the most visual representation of sound that I can provide and it illustrates exactly how the musical “picture” is gradually erased by compression.

In the Final Installment

Now that you know how we perceive sound and how compression works, you’re all ready to read about why compressed music loses its “magic”. In Part 3, I’ll explain a bit harmonics and their role in creating the soul of the music. I’ll also sum up what this all means when it comes to choosing the level of compression that’s right for you.

As always, I hope you’re enjoying this information and I welcome any feedback or questions you might have.

Ready for Part 3?