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January 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
HIFICRITIC
Volume 7 No. 4
Headphone Explosion Shootout!
Martin Colloms assesses newcomers from AKG, Yamaha, Jays, B&W, Sennheiser and Focal against established references from PSB, Sennheiser and Denon.
Review By Martin Colloms

 

  The explosion in the headphones market means that everybody wants to get in on the act: studios, record companies, music producers, retailer own brands, fashion houses, pro audio and hi-fi companies to name but some. Once there was a demarcation between headphone manufactures and general hi-fi producers, but the boundaries have become increasingly blurred and now anybody seems able to get into the headphone business. A specialist consultant can work up a design using sophisticated CAD software including electroacoustic modelling, and then contract the manufacture to a Far East transducer and headphone specialist. Marketing skills are combined with celebrity endorsements, but improving standards of design finish and comfort is undeniable, and since there are more than 400 models on the UK market, our survey can never be comprehensive.

By definition, headphone listening is somewhat personal. They do not need to be shared, and rather more than with loudspeakers the wide range of sound qualities may appeal to different people. Headphones may also suffer variations in performance on different heads, due to variations in fit and exact position, the latter affecting the stereo and upper frequencies, the former the amount of bass. There's some tendency to follow the maxim 'the more bass the better', since this is a known strength of headphone replay compared with most loudspeakers. DJ varieties usually have even more bass, attempting to replicate a 'club' sound.

Conversely, the headphones from established hi fi companies aim to sound like a high quality pair of stereo speakers optimally located in a good room. Similarly, albeit with the odd quirk, the studio models attempt to match the performance and character of higher sound level, nearfield studio monitoring with loudspeakers, and may sound a little dry at more normal volume levels. To quote newly elected AES president Sean Olive's presentation at Ryerson University in October 2013: "The popularity of headphones has now exploded to produce annual worldwide sales of almost 6.2 billion. Premium headphones (62 and over) now account for 90% of the annual revenue growth, Having said that, the overall performance consensus is quite poor amongst available designs and so far we have measured substantial divergences from a notional normality, either the characteristic headphone response or the sound."

HIFICRITIC agrees, but the problem areas may be addressed and reasonably consistent sound quality evaluation may be obtained by using trusted reference material, keeping a careful watch on the average loudness used, and paying close attention to headband adjustment and the location of earpieces on the head and ears. However, headphones remain items of personal use, and ultimately only the purchaser can decide. Modern retail often affords the opportunity to return samples if the fit and sound quality does not suit, even if the opportunities for comparing headphones are rare. This survey has a diverse collection from AKG, Yamaha, Jays, B&W, Sennheiser and Focal, supported by comparisons with longer term references like the PSB 4U-1, the 'open ear' Sennheiser Ovation 565, and the enclosed Denon AH-D7000.

With the absence of the room reverberation which is normally present with conventional loudspeaker listening, even inexpensive headphones can sound cleaner, faster, better timed, more dynamic, and more coherent. The concomitant and somewhat artificial 'stereo image in the head' effect may well be considered tolerable, and many may actually find the intrinsic intimacy of the presented 'spread between the ears' soundstage comforting. Headphones routinely extend from 20Hz in the low bass to beyond audibility, so bandwidth is rarely a problem. But substantial deviations from an ideal neutral sounding target response do occur. Some variations will be due to the precision of fit to an individual's head, whether they rest on the ears, supra-aural, or fit over the ears circum-aural and some to the relative location of the inner transducer to a listener's ear canal. Within that overall wide bandwidth, major variations in frequency response uniformity may present themselves, with consequent impact on subjective frequency balance, timbre, coloration and also stereo focus and perspectives.

Experienced listeners seek to evaluate the impact of such response errors on sound quality. It is also important to check whether the headphones are musically interesting, drive a good beat and are entertaining. One panellist noted that fixed cable models can sound better than models with detachable cables, and that the use of adapters and indeed the type of adapter can subtly affect the sound. Comfort, wearing fatigue and pressure issues are also examined.

 

a-Jays Five (90)
These nicely made Swedish in-ear buds are partly made from machined aluminium alloy. They fit well and have a good range of fittings for alternative ears. They come in three different remote and mike versions for Apple (iOS), Windows and Android phones. Rated a little above average, the mid bass was somewhat exaggerated, the high treble a little dull and the mid treble had a minor coloration a hint of bell like ringing. It benefits from the good in-ear coupling, but the sound quality rates only a little above average overall. The packaging is stylish but we found the flat cable a bit microphonic, so it suffers from some mechanical noise in body movement, heard mechanically via the buds.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

A Jays / Five /Sweden

Price (typical)

90

Sensitivity/impedance

N/A dB/mW /16ohms

Type / weight

in ear, closed / NA g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 good

Frequency response, subjective

 Average plus

Frequency response, measured

N/A

Decay response

N/A

Sound quality rating  

63%

Review rating overall

 Worth considering

 

 

AKG K550 (250)
These over-ear closed headphones are quite comfortable, have a professional feel, and excess budget has not been spent on packaging. They sounded well balanced, came with versatile and generous length cabling, and went reasonably loud on an iPod. Initially underwhelming, with patience its more subtle virtues grew on us. It  proved to be  unexaggerated and substantially natural with low coloration, fine piano reproduction, extended upbeat bass, and a clean, extended, if slightly dull treble. It times well and jumped into the top group for musical involvement, scoring 78% overall. It also has quite good noise isolation and does not annoy others. Our approval of its balanced sound was amply confirmed in a frequency response that is one if the most uniform measured: very flat in the bass and midrange and achieving 7Hz to 14kHz (3dB). It fell off at extreme high frequencies to a reasonable 12dB down by 20kHz. The decay spectrae look very clean with an essentially linear phase character, and also very good rear chamber absorption. These headphones might not look a million dollars but the sound is just right, the build quality is high, and the price is competitive indicating that this AKG deserves a Best Buy rating.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

AKG / K550 /Austria

Price

From 165

Sensitivity/impedance

114dB/V / 32 ohms

Type / weight

Over ear, closed ear cup / 305 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 3m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

Average

Frequency response, subjective

Very good

Frequency response, measured

Excellent

Decay response

Very good

Sound quality rating

78%

Overall rating

 Best Buy

 

 

AKG Q701 (269)
One of three 'studio' models in AKG's Quincy Jones Signature line, the price   to varies widely, so prospective purchasers will find some market research helpful. These open-back AKGs are very comfortable and have a fast, open sounding, if slightly dry bass. The midrange and high frequencies deliver sparkling detail, little coloration plus airy, spacious and well-focused soundstages, helping towards a fine overall score of 74%. Designed primarily for monitoring, they're actually not loud enough to operate from an iPod source, and need a dedicated headphone amplifier or similar. The frequency response (referred to 1kHz) showed a 5dB mid-bass lift and then fell off to -8dB by 20Hz. The upper mid had a 5dB ripple and the treble was a little dull but fairly smooth. The decay responses are not as clean as those for the 550, with some midrange clutter at -30dB in the 10mS region; one might have expected this open design to perform better in this particular test.

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

AKG / Q701 /Austria

Price

200 to 400

Sensitivity/impedance

105dB/V / 62 ohms

Type / weight

Over ear, open ear cup / 235 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 3m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 Below average

Frequency response, subjective

 Good plus

Frequency response, measured

Average Plus

Decay response

Good

Sound quality rating

74%

Review rating overall

 Recommended

 

 

Bowers & Wilkins P-7 (330)
Hot off the starting blocks, these on-ear cans are superbly built and finished in chrome and black leather , rather like a fine camera, so they look as though they're worth the high cost. They are compact and lightweight with a quite tight fit, presumably so they don't slip off, but also for improved noise isolation. On sound quality they are the best yet from B&W, and are ranked near the top of the group at 71%. While cans are partly a matter of fit and personal taste, the P-7 had a mildly rich midrange, which was noticeable on piano, alongside a firm, punchy and exaggerated bass, if not quite of disco proportions. The treble is comparatively recessed, has some 'character' (not sounding perfectly even), but subjectively has some detail and extension to the higher frequencies. The frequency response was rather wayward, fairly flat in the midband decade (200 to 2000 Hz), but then had bass boost of 10dB by 80Hz continuing on to a well extended 14Hz. Oddly, the mid-treble is 5dB down, 3kHz to 10kHz and rapidly decays thereafter, behaviour that is hard to correlate with the sound quality observed. The decay response was complicated by the bass boost which delays the low frequencies on the graphical presentation, and it was rated unexceptional here. Expensive and luxurious, you must make up your own mind about this upmarket performance and style combination.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

B&W/ P-7 /UK

Price (typical)

320

Sensitivity/impedance

111dB/V /22 ohms

Type / weight

on ear, closed ear cup / 290 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

Average plus

Frequency response, subjective

Average +

Frequency response, measured

Average

Decay response

Average

Sound quality rating  

71%

Review rating overall

Recommended

 

 

Focal Spirit Classic (250)
Resting partly on the ear, this essentially closed-back design is quite heavy and has a rather firm headband. It is sensitive enough for iPod use, is well styled and finished, and comes in luxury packaging. We found the sound pleasant if unexceptional, with slowed musical timing, average plus clarity, and a somewhat 'closed in' stereo image. Squeezing the ear more firmly into the padded cup gives an improvement in scale and power, with some gain in stereo spaciousness, resulting in a split score of 57/65%; this is perhaps a model to try for oneself. The frequency response is on the rich side, if fairly smooth with a very flat and well extended bass (with firm sealing) that's about 6dB too 'rich' below 200Hz . From the pivotal 1kHz the response falls by about 4dB to 6kHz and then shows surprisingly good extension to 25kHz but at a lower -8dB average level. Smooth and rather sweet is the overall verdict. Perhaps correlating with the 'just average' transparency, the decay response was 'slower' than usual; a number of decay spectra were visible from 0.5ms to 20ms.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

Focal / Spirit Classic /France

Price

220?

Sensitivity/impedance

102dB/mW / 32 ohms

Type / weight

Part over ear, closed ear cup / 225 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 Below average

Frequency response, subjective

Average plus

Frequency response, measured

Average +

Decay response

Average -

Sound quality rating %

57%,  (65% with tighter fit)

Review rating overall

Worth considering

 

 

 

Sennheiser Momentum Black (260)
From this company's recent series designed to compete in a more fashion conscious market, the Momentums have classy styling and build, good sensitivity for iPod use, and are compact. These on-ear cans have a firm grip together with a slightly firm headband pressure. (While we found them to be on-ear they are described as over-ear, maybe for those with smaller pinnae!) Listeners noted a loudness contour effect with both bass and treble lift leading to a mildly recessed midrange. The sound was described as powerful and quite upbeat with quite good detail and clarity, with fairly spacious stereo, scoring 68% overall. (This is actually lower than historic references such as Sennheiser's classic and discontinued Ovation 565). It comes with versatile accessories including two lengths of cable. The classic 565's frequency response measured rather well: a little bass shy perhaps (-6dB at 25Hz), but very flat through the broad midrange. The new series, and this Momentum Black in particular, is clearly very different, and is presumably aimed at a different type of purchaser and so to  cover a 10Hz to 4kHz response  requires wider +8/-4dB limits. Yes, the bass is well extended, but the lower mid dip is quite marked and the treble could be smoother from 3kHz to 7kHz, though thereafter it is well extended up to 16kHz. Decay response is rated about average with some early features clearing by 2mS except at low frequencies where the bass lift slows up the decay rate  

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

Sennheiser/ Momentum Black /Germany

Price (typical)

250

Sensitivity/impedance

110dB/mW /18ohms

Type / weight

over ear, closed / 190 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 good

Frequency response, subjective

 Loudness contour

Frequency response, measured

Average +

Decay response

Average

Sound quality rating  

68%

Review rating overall

Worth considering

 

 

Sennheiser Momentum Blue
These Momentum Blue headphones look very similar to the Black, though they use Alcantara (a form of synthetic suede) for the ear pads. They're described as 'on-ear' and exert fairly high pressure for a good fit and to prevent slipping off. A small increase in sensitivity over the Black may be handy for iPod use. The relative merits of the two Momentums led to some difference of opinion, some preferring the Blue and some the Black. The averaged scores were similar, certainly above average, and on musical timing grounds too, but it was also clear that both these headphones had been fashion-tuned for modern pop sounds and this Blue version had still more bass. We can see the evidence in its frequency response, which resembles the Black above 3kHz, includes the severe 4kHz dip, but is smoother through the midrange. However, it also shows challenging and audibly unmistakable levels of bass lift, reaching +10dB by 200Hz and leveling out at +15dB from 100Hz right down to 10Hz. The decay response was unpromising, with a resonance ridge at 5.5kHz and slow decay at low frequencies; the low midrange was also rather cluttered.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

Sennheiser Momentum Blue/Germany

Price (typical)

180

Sensitivity/impedance

112dB/mW /18ohms

Type / weight

on ear, closed / 190g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 good

Frequency response, subjective

Average

Frequency response, measured

Below average

Decay response

Average -

Sound quality rating  

62%

Review rating overall

Satisfactory

 

 

Yamaha HPH-MT220 (250)
We obtained mixed results with the three Yamaha models tried, and this particular design ironically the least costly of the three was considered the most accurate, scoring a fine 70%. A closed-back, over-ear design with average noise isolation, it had comfortable ear pads filled with memory foam. Sensitivity was moderate, so it's not so loud as some when used with iPods. It came with a heavy 1.2m coiled cable and was heavier than average at 415g. Musical timing was quite good, and the sound was entertaining and fatigue free, if a little sweet in the treble. The stereo image seemed quite wide, and a little more projection and immediacy would have helped sharpen up the sense of focus. Conversely it was quite accurate compared with the group as a whole. Taking 1kHz as the pivot, the measured frequency response has the ubiquitous bass lift, +5dB by 180 Hz and levelling out at +8dB down to 20Hz. The 3kHz dip is a fairly severe -10dB, while the treble extension is quite good but rather ragged with 5dB variations. The waterfall decay responses are unexceptional, with slower than usual early decay but fair clearing thereafter.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

Yamaha / HPH-MT220 /Japan

Price (typical)

150

Sensitivity/impedance

97dB/mW / 37 ohms

Type / weight

Over ear, closed ear cup / 415 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 average

Frequency response, subjective

 Good plus

Frequency response, measured

Good

Decay response

Average plus

Sound quality rating  

70%

Review rating overall

Recommended

 

 

 

Yamaha  HPH PRO 400
The first of two more costly Yamahas, the HPH PRO 400 is an on-ear model, and one is aware of the ear pressure, increased firmness from the headband and the higher weight associated with this design. It's presented in high gloss white, offered quite good noise isolation, and came with two lengths of cable plus iPod adapters with cord microphone. We felt that it sounded rather downbeat with a heavier, slower bass, and also had a recessed quality in the midrange. Stereo images were somehow darker with less focus and immediacy than usual, and the sound was not very involving. Our rating was a disappointing 52%, which is actually below average. The frequency response shows why it sounded duller than the 220, since the reasonably smooth treble runs at an average of 6dB down compared with the 1kHz reference level. There is an isolated peak at 500Hz, a severe 270Hz dip of 10dB, and 10dB of excessive and not very tidy bass below 110Hz. The early decay spectra showed a smooth but low decay rate, still clearing rather slowly even by 3mS.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

Yamaha / HPH-Pro 400 /Japan

Price (typical)

200

Sensitivity/impedance

106dB/mW /23 ohms

Type / weight

Over ear, closed ear cup /289 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 average

Frequency response, subjective

 Average -

Frequency response, measured

Average -

Decay response

Average -

Sound quality rating  

52%

Review rating overall

Satisfactory

 

Yamaha HPH PRO 500
Physically similar to the PRO 400, and feeling both heavy (and it is heavier!) and rather firm on the ears, it had a higher sensitivity than the 400, so will play louder on an iPod. With a characteristically heavy bass and moderately recessed treble, it leans towards a 'beat studio' balance. The 500 was in fact preferred to the 400, scoring 15% higher at 57%. It timed better, sounded both more focused and open, and had a little more midrange definition and detail, but the price remains rather high for the performance. There was less excess bass than the 400, though no lack of it, since the graph shows that it is only -3dB at 20Hz relative to 1kHz, and has an odd response shape with a maximum output at 200Hz. The 400Hz dip is audible though not as much as one might expect from the graph. Rated as unexceptional and a little more coloured in character, the decay rate for the 500 was more rapid than for the 400, though a resonant ridge at 800 Hz could prove audible under critical listening.

 

HIFICRITIC

Headphone Test Results and Data

Make / Model/ Country

Yamaha / HPH-Pro 500 /Japan

Price (typical)

240

Sensitivity/impedance

106dB/mW /23ohms

Type / weight

Over ear, closed ear cup / 369 g

Cables /connections

1.2 and 2.5m, 3.5 and 6.3mm jacks

Loudness on iPod

 average

Frequency response, subjective

 Average

Frequency response, measured

Average

Decay response

Average -

Sound quality rating  

57%

Review rating overall

 Worth considering

 

 

Headphone Conclusions
Thinking back to the previous set from January this year winners included the PSB 4u-1 and PSB 4u-2, The Beyer Custom One Pro and budget Beyer DTZ501P, the B&W P5 made it to the line while Sennheiser's costly in-ear the IE80 scored for sheer accuracy. From the latest batch the AKG 550 stands out as a Best Buy with their Q701 recommended also. While we think they are expensive the new B&W P7 enters the recommended class as does a new entry from Yamaha, the HPH-MT220.

 

 

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