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Head-Fi Summer Headphone Buying Guide - 2012


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Head-Fi Summer Headphone Buying Guide - 2012

  1. 1. s p e c i a l f e at u r e ssummit-Fi THE PINNACLE OF AUDIoPHILE PERFORMANCE nso r po iersheadphone amps getting the Full experience urp r emnew for summer it o visgaming headphones get in the game
  2. 2. Head-Fi is the online HQ for headphone &personal audio enthusiasts.Founder & Editor Head-Fi would like to special thanks to our sponsors:JUDE MANSILLA nu FORCECreative DirectorHuddler, Inc. alo audioTONY GLORIOSO v-modaSales & MarketingHuddler, Inc. JH AudioCONNER CALLAHAN Head-Direct Moon AudioEditorial FiioJoe Cwik audiofly lab kablEEditorial & Partner SupportHuddler, Inc. AsusNICK VALLURI Audeze© 2012, is a Huddlercommunity.
  3. 3. 2 Founder’s Letter jude mansilla After we first published the Head-Fi Holiday Gift Guide, some people asked me if I could make it more accessible, particularly for non-Head-Fi’ers who might happen upon it. And while I may think of ways to do that in future updates, the Head-Fi Gift Guide is mostly for the more diehard Head-Fi’ers—the ones who probably won’t need to look up the definition of “IEM,” “24/192,” “DAC,” “FLAC,” “XLR,” or “opamp.” Of course, I’d be thrilled if non-Head- Fi’ers also find the guide interesting, but at its core, this gift guide is for us, the denizens of the Head-Fi community—the hardcore headphone audio enthusiasts. With each update (and we’re planning on doing at least two updates per year), new products will be added to the guide; and some may also be removed, as they’re value-bumped by the introduction of better such products, or discontinued. And, again, the Head-Fi Gift Guide is in no way intended to be an encyclopedia of all the world’s headphone hi-fi products; but, rather, a look at some of this community’s favorite products as gift ideas. And, in most cases (unless otherwise indicated), the products in the guide will be products I have direct experience using and listening to. I hope you find the Head-Fi Gift Guide helpful and fun! Best Regards, Jude Mansilla Founder,
  4. 4. 45 over-earheadphones BE HEARD.20 in-earheadphones From new breeds teeming with audiophile potential, to old classics36 wirelessheadphones we know and love, this selection of over-the-ear headphones will keep40 headphoneamps your favorite tracks playing loud (& other gear) and clear.62 summitfi featurettes18 gamingheadsets46 powercorner44 headphonecables51 desktopaudio59 portabledevices 05 page74
  5. 5. 6 7 Sony MDR-V6 Sony MDR-ZX700 Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (around $65) Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (around $120) If you’re wondering why this headphone is included in the guide, call it a bit of sentimentality from me—the Sony The MDR-ZX700’s bass is energetic, yet controlled, which is a trait I don’t think is common enough in affordable closed MDR-V6 was the headphone that got me started on this long, winding headphone hi-fi journey back in the 1980’s. headphones. The MDR-ZX700’s mids and highs are resolving without being edgy. Is it the best at the price? No, and hasn’t been in a long time. You can find headphones that isolate more, sound more If you’ve heard the Shure SRH440, but felt it on the colder side of your tonal preferences, then the Sony’s more authoritative refined, have better detail retrieval, etc. bass (and a slightly warmer tilt than the Shure) might be more your speed. Yeah, it’s old, but it’s still a rugged, well-isolating, fun, bright, lively sounding headphone with good bass extension I consider the MDR-ZX700 a sort of modern spin by Sony on its classic Sony MDR-V6—a more current, affordable closed and impact. The MDR-V6 (and its pro-audio twin, the Sony MDR-7506) is still widely used in studios and on-location headphone, and another classic in the making. as a pro monitoring piece. “The bass-midrange balance of the ZX700 is a bit better than that of the V6, making the transition appear smoother and This many years later, I still like the classic ol’ V6, and still feel comfortable recommending it from time to time. the general signature – more balanced. Indeed, I couldn’t think of a better term for the overall sound of the ZX700 than ‘well-blended’ as the sound signature really does sit better with me than the sum of its parts.... Punchy and warm but “...the V6 has aged very well... It is well-built, comfortable, and isolating enough to compete with the best ‘modern’ with excellent resolution and a strong midrange presence, the Sonys make for good all-rounders... the sound signature studio and DJ headphones.” simply works when taken as a whole.”” Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl Grado SR-60i and Grado SR-80i Open, full-size, on-the-ear headphones (around $60 and $80, respectively) Why have I listed both the Grado SR-60i and the SR-80i? Because, so often, SR-60i owners end up quickly upgrading to the SR-80i. After many years being happy with the Sony MDR-V6, the Grado SR-60 and SR-80 represented the next steps in my Head-Fi journey. These entry-level Grado headphones have probably created more headphone audiophiles than any other headphone models, for their affordability, for their accessibility at many audio retail locations, and for their lively Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $160) presentations. The Grado SR-60i and Grado SR-80i sound immediately impressive, addictive, especially to those who aren’t already I’m including the closed-back ATH-M50 in this guide because it is a very strong grizzled Head-Fi veterans. favorite in this price range with Head-Fi’ers, known for solid overall performance at the price, with a tendency toward bass emphasis and sparkly treble. I see few I’ve gifted several sets of Grado SR-60i and SR-80i headphones, and they’ve been met with great smiles and headphones recommended as often by our community, both for starters looking for a enthusiasm every single time. good entry into Head-Fi’dom, as well as for seasoned Head-Fi’ers looking for a good closed around-the-ear headphone. “The best thing about the Grados is that they don’t try to be a jack of all trades. They are absolutely stunning for what they are; clear, detailed, bright, and aggressive Rock cans. As far as I am concerned the SR60i really is one of the “The ATH-M50 is one of those rare products where the quality/price ratio really hits best all-around values in personal audio.” the sweet spot, and in fact is like a small miracle in the world of pro audio. When you Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl get Grammy Award-winning audio engineers and producers like George Massenburg, “The Grado SR80 is a classic headphone. It has a classic style... It has been around virtually unchanged for years. It Frank Filipetti, Al Schmitt, etc., singing its praises publicly, you know it’s got to be is a superb entry to audiophile headphone listening.” something special.” Head-Fi member/reviewer Prog Rock Man Head-Fi member/reviewer Rob Chang (Lunatique)
  6. 6. 8 9 Sennheiser HD 558 and Sennheiser HD 598 Bose QuietComfort 15 Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $190 and $250, respectively) Closed, full-size, active-noise-canceling, around-the-ear headphone ($299) For a nice open-backed full size headphone in this price range, Sennheiser’s HD 558 is one of the best choices I’ve come The Bose QuietComfort 15 has the most effective active noise cancellation circuit I’ve yet used; and, for an active noise across. Lightweight, and well padded, the HD 558 is among the most comfortable headphones I’ve owned (at any price), canceler, this headphone sounds pretty good, too. If the amount of active noise attenuation is your primary consideration, the and I’ve owned a lot of headphones. QC15 would be my top recommendation—it’s uncannily good in this regard. And, thankfully, the HD 558 sounds as good as it is comfortable, projecting a wide, open sonic image. Though its bass Musically, the QC15 sounds good, too; but, if you’re used to ultra-high-end headphones (like ones we more typically discuss at presentation is more on the neutral side, there’s still a sense of fullness down low. Smooth, yet with outstanding detail Head-Fi in this price range), the QC15 is not likely to wow you with its musical output while sitting in a quiet room at your desk overall, is how I’d characterize this headphone. or in your easy chair. Use it in its element (plane, train, data center, any place with loud droning background noise), and it’s a very hard over-ear headphone to top. The HD 598 is like an HD 558 that went to sonic finishing school—simply put, it’s more refined. Most noticeable is that the HD 598’s presentation is slightly more treble-tilted, and its bass more controlled. The HD 598’s more polished sound Additionally, the Bose QC15 is exceptionally comfortable, even on my huge head, with its very moderate clamping force, very signature is, to my ears, higher-end, and earns the difference in price between it and its mid-line sibling. soft cushy earpads, and light weight. The QC15 also folds very flat into its compact semi-hardside case, so its easy to pack. I also love the HD 598’s entirely unique color scheme—no other headphone I’m aware of looks like it, with its cream- If you’re type of person who travels a bunch, but can’t get comfortable with in-ear headphones, then the QC15 has to be added colored leather-like chassis, and dark brown faux burl wood trim and velour ear cushions. to your must-try list. As far as over-ear headphones go, the Bose QC15 is my current first choice for international travel. “There is just too much to like about the HD598. I classify it as the best all-rounder, multi-purpose headphone that I have ever had the privilege to listen to. It’s just one of those headphones that are a joy to own, because there is always something that it can be great at. And it’s flexible enough that it can *always* be used for something, if not everything. Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones (around $150) Whether using it for it’s superb long term comfort, utilizing it’s expansive soundstage to gain an edge in gaming, or just simply to enjoy tunes with it’s very special sound signature; the HD598 is sure to impress just about anyone in some aspect or another. Quite the achievement by Sennheiser if you ask me.” The Skullcandy Aviator, in my opinion, is one of the coolest looking headphones on the head, though it takes some youthful Head-Fi member Katun spirit to pull it off. Sonically, I think the Aviator holds its own as a portable headphone, even at $150, with its surprisingly even-handed presentation (surprising considering rapper Jay Z had something to do with it), and a nice open sound. That openness comes PSB M4U 2 at the expense of isolation, which the Aviator is devoid of (despite technically being a closed headphone)—so, in terms of Closed, full-size, active-noise-canceling, around-the-ear headphone ($399) isolation, assume it similar to an open headphone. “I prefer the Aviators better when it comes to overall sound quality/clarity. Especially if you’re listening to rock/acoustic/ Paul Barton’s company (PSB) is well known with audio enthusiasts as a loudspeaker company whose products typically alternative... They also scale up with a better source and are light and comfortable...” perform well above their price points. When I found out Barton wanted to turn his attention to headphones (as an increasing number of loudspeaker manufacturers are doing), he had my attention. Head-Fi member Roma (Roma101) The M4U 2 is an impressive first go at headphones for Barton. First of all, it also operates passively, and in this mode the M4U 2 sounds very good, with some well-executed low bass emphasis, and good clarity throughout. The M4U 2 also has Skullcandy Mix Master Mike an amplified mode without active noise canceling, which could come in handy if all you’ve got on hand is a particularly Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphones (around $250) anemic headphone output. This amplified mode has a lively sound, but at the expense of a little self-noise from the amp circuit, and some loss of clarity (compared to its passive mode). The M4U 2’s active noise canceling circuit is good (though definitely not as effective as the Bose QC15’s). And, again, like Sennheiser’s active noise-cancelers (and unlike The Mix Master Mike is a DJ-type headphone (designed in conjunction with its legendary DJ namesake), with a couple of unique Bose’s), the M4U 2 also operates passively, so that when your batteries die, you’re music need not be cast aside. features. DJ’s often do one-ear listening, so the Mix Master Mike sums both channels to mono when either earpiece is rotated for one-ear listening. The single-side headphone cable can be plugged into either the left or right earpiece. And there’s a mute button. The biggest downsides for me are the M4U 2’s size (it’s large) and the fact that it doesn’t fold flat (so the carrying case is bulky). And, though the M4U 2 is rather comfortable on my huge head, it doesn’t feel as light and gentle on the head The Mix Master Mike’s prominent (but not overwhelming) bass, good mids, and softer treble, all combine nicely for an (in terms of both weight and clamping force) as the QC15. It also has an imposing look on the head--rather heavy and easy-to-listen to sound signature that is modestly detailed. Overall, I think the Mix Master Mike is the most refined sounding severe looking. Skullcandy headphone so far. Build quality seems good, but rather plasticky in the hand. The Mix Master Mike might be a tough sell, though, to Head-Fi’ers at $250, a price point at which many outstanding headphones reside. But I think it’s a worthy full- Simply put, with its active modes turned off, the PSB M4U 2 is a good 32-ohm closed headphone that responds well size closed headphone consideration, even at the price. to good portable and desktop amps, and yet can still be driven well directly from my iPhone 4S. Its self-amplified and active noise canceling modes are nice bonuses. If you’re in the market for a good over-ear travel headphone—and sound quality is your primary concern—the PSB M4U 2 should definitely be placed on your list of candidates.
  7. 7. 10 11 Shure SRH440 Closed, around-the-ear headphone (around $100) V-MODA Crossfade M-80 and Crossfade LP2 “Packaging and accessories are brilliant. Build Closed, portable...M-80 is on-the ear, and the LP2 is around-the-ear quality is top notch and very fitting for a portable (both around $200) A closed-back, pro-audio-oriented headphone, the SRH440 has found popularity for studio use. However, many model. Comfort, a subjective thing to be sure, is audiophiles also appreciate its more neutral tonal balance, the SRH440 having none of the bass bloat that many of its better (for me) than any similar type of headphone closed competitors have. Though a full-size headphone, it folds into a pretty compact, portable bundle. In the past year, V-MODA’s M-80 has earned a place as one of the top choices for a closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (alongside the likes of the I’ve ever tried. These things alone add up to a At its street price of around $100, I think the Shure SRH440 is one of the better bargains in Head-Fi’dom, particularly Sennheiser HD 25-1 II and the beyerdynamic DT 1350). great user experience, even if that was all the because it can be challenging to find a good, affordable, neutral-ish closed headphone. The M-80’s sound signature includes rich, detailed mids, accompanied by M-80s had going for them... And then there’s the “If you are looking for great closed headphones and are on a budget, my vote is for the Shure SRH-440 and no other.” smooth treble response, and full bass (with emphasis placed where I think any sound. Large, solid, impactful bass that mostly Head-Fi member/reviewer gelocks bass emphasis should be, which is down in the deep-bass region). It’s a sound signature that many audiophiles have found very easy to love, and with enough stays well controlled. Warm, full mids that make of a down-low kick to also satisfy the more typical non-Head-Fi’er consumer tastes. (I find most non-audiophile consumers tend to prefer bass emphasis to any genre seem engaging. And a smooth balanced beyerdynamic DT 1350 Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone (around $300) neutrality.) top end that is reasonably detailed but extremely forgiving of poor material or equipment. I enjoy On sonics alone, I think the M-80 is entirely in HD 25-1 II and DT 1350 territory. these. A lot. Even at home when I have plenty of On sound alone, the beyerdynamic DT 1350 is my current favorite closed, portable around-the-ear headphone. Sonically, I That the M-80 sounds so good and looks so stylish is a huge win. I think it’s one of simply couldn’t expect much more from something this compact, as the DT 1350 sounds to me like a very good full-sized, the headphones that will force the makers of its more conservatively styled (read: ‘better’ options, these are still fun to listen to. That closed around-the-ear headphone. staidly styled) competitors to take notice. seems like a successful product to me.” This little beyerdynamic also seems durable enough to easily withstand the physical abuse of being crammed into my The full-size Crossfade LP2 is a refinement of V-MODA’s Crossfade (which, by backpacks and messenger bags. The DT 1350 is part of beyerdynamic’s flagship Tesla line. Though it was designed as a the way, is still available), taming the original Crossfade’s very heavy bass, and Head-Fi member/reviewer John Grandberg (project86) pro audio headphone, it still may be the most audiophile-friendly closed, portable around-the-ear I’ve heard. adding in more present, more detailed treble. Despite the refinements (relative to the original Crossfade), the LP2 is still a bass-heavy headphone, and a fine For portable use, it’s important to note that the DT 1350’s plug housing is rather large (more like a full-size headphone’s choice for a travel headphone for those who don’t like in-ears or active noise- plug); and that it does not come with portable-use accoutrements like inline remote or a headset mic. Yes, I’d love to cancelers. (In noisy environments, I like some bass emphasis, to help strengthen have those features, but, still, its sound quality currently puts the DT 1350 in my on-the-go bag very frequently. the sense of rhythm through the din.) “Superb build quality and unprecedented isolation meet sound quality that can rival the best portable headphones Like the original Crossfade, the Crossfade LP2 is a full-size around-the-ear I’ve heard and many full-size sets. The construction is nothing short of bulletproof and - soundstage size aside - the headphone, and is very comfortable to wear, even for extended periods of time. In DT1350 is technically the best truly portable headphone I’ve come across, boasting superb detail and clarity, excellent addition to their stunning looks, both the M-80 and LP2 are built very tough, and bass control, and a level signature.” should withstand much abuse. And, recently, V-MODA has improved its three- button remote/mic cable significantly, separating the mic unit from the remote Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl (for ergonomic improvement) and improving sound quality on both the send and receive sides. (This new cable is called the SpeakEasy cable.) Fischer Audio FA-003 Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $180) A very well-regarded, affordable closed headphone on, I’ve only heard the FA-003 briefly (and it made a great first impression). While I await more personal experience with this headphone, here’s what veteran Head-Fi member, reviewer, re-masterer LFF had to say about it: “They are light, comfy and sound fantastic. These are mastering grade headphones and I wouldn’t hesitate for one second to recommend them for such critical sound applications. The sonic picture the FA-003’s painted time after time never failed to impress me.” Head-Fi member/reviewer Luis Flores (LFF)
  8. 8. 12 13 Sennheiser HD 25-1 II and HD 25-1 II Originals Sennheiser PX 90 and PX 200-II Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone (around $180 to $250) Portable, on-the-ear headphones (PX 90 is open, PX 200 is closed. Priced around $30 and $90, respectively) One of the all-time headphone hi-fi classics, the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II is still the top choice for a closed, portable on-the-ear headphone for many Head-Fi’ers. It’s one of my all-time favorites in that category. The Sennheiser PX 90 has a charming, no-frills design. With the simplest of headbands, affixed to which are equally unadorned open earpieces, the PX 90 reminds me of the legendary (and equally stark) HD 414. With robust bass, relatively neutral mids, and a lively treble, the HD 25-1 II is definitely on the fun side of the audiophile-type sound signatures. What you get for around $30 with the PX 90 is an elegant, well-balanced sounding headphone that’s great for on-the-go use. If you’re a Head-Fi’er with several people on your gift list you’d like to introduce to Head-Fi’dom, the PX 90 is an excellent, affordable choice. With an extremely tough build (yet still lightweight), the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II remains a popular DJ headphone for its bombproof durability, outstanding isolation, and retro-hip utilitarian looks. And if you want one of the The PX 200-II is an easy go-to for a portable around-the-ear headphone under $100 with a more neutral sound signature. If you’ve found grooviest looking portable headphone choices around, pick up the “Originals” version, which is a special adidas most portable around-the-ears too bass-heavy for you, put the PX 200-II at the top of your list, especially if you want something ultra- co-branded edition--same headphone, but with very cool, sporty adidas blue stripes, cable, and pads. portable. A closed, on-the-ear design, the PX 200-II provides good passive noise isolation, too. “These cans are tried and true, with a great all-’rounder sound. Good energy throughout, the bottom end (The PX 200-II is now also available with a three-button remote/mic cable, and that model is the PX 200-IIi, and is priced around $110.) provides a nice driving rhythm and the top end is tuned for just the right amount of shimmer with hi hats.” “The PX200-II therefore has all the hallmarks of a critical and commercial success – usability, excellent sonic characteristics, and a Head-Fi member/reviewer Armaegis respected name to back it all up - and will likely become more popular than the famed PX100 in the near future...” Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl HiFiMAN HE-400 Sennheiser Amperior Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone ($399) Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphone (around $350) I wondered when something would come ‘round to challenge the Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 for my top pick in the sub-$500 sit-down, Despite the new name, there’s no denying that the new Amperior by Sennheiser was born of the Sennheiser HD high-end headphone category, and that something is the HE-400 planar magnetic headphone by HiFiMAN. Listen to this headphone, 25 line of headphones--I mean, just look at it. And if you consider the Amperior a new addition to the HD 25 and its $399 price tag will have you wondering if its price was mismarked—like you found something in the clearance bin that wasn’t family, then it’s the best sounding HD 25 I’ve yet heard. The occasional tendency of the HD 25-1 II to be treble- supposed to be there. peaky has been done away with in the Amperior. The Amperior also refines the HD 25’s bass, exhibiting greater control and definition. That the Amperior has a nominal impedance of only 18 ohms, and is quite sensitive, If the HD 600 and HD 650 aren’t pressing your sparkly-treble hot-button, the HE-400 probably will. Bringing to bear a lot of what makes makes it easy to drive straight from your phone or media player. No amp? No problem. Not surprisingly, the the higher-end planar magnetic headphones by HiFiMAN and Audeze so special—but with a bargain price, and enough sensitivity to be Amperior has become one of my favorite grab-and-go over-ear headphones. driven by an iPhone 4S in a pinch—the HE-400 is one of the easiest sub-$500 recommendations to make right now. Construction quality feels every bit as solid as the HD 25’s before it. Actually, its substantial use of metal makes Soaring, shimmering treble, and a greater sense of overall speed—certainly more so than any over-ear in this price range that I’ve it feel even more unyielding than the HD 25’s before it. Its machined solid aluminum earcups feel bulletproof, heard—are the HE-400’s hallmarks. and look very cool, in either blue or silver. My only real quibble with the Amperior is that it comes with a 3-button remote/mic accessory dongle--I’d have preferred that its cable instead had an in-line, built-in version. Also, like beyerdynamic’s DT 1350, the Creative Labs Aurvana Live! Amperior’s plug housing is quite large. But these are just minor quibbles with a headphone that sounds and Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $70) looks so darn good. A worthy addition to the legacy of the HD 25 family, I think the Sennheiser Amperior is going to be a blockbuster Creative Labs has been discussed a lot on Head-Fi’s forums, particularly their audio/MIDI interface products. Of their slew of headphone headphone with high-end headphone enthusiasts. products, though, one routinely shines through with frequent member recommendations, and that’s the Creative Aurvana Live. “...the CAL!s are bass-heavy headphones with a very rich-sounding midrange and a warm tonality. However, the Creatives boast better clarity in the (far less forward) midrange and a more dimensional sound - the soundstage has some depth in addition to the width. They are more laid back and balanced and at the same time a little faster when the music calls for it. The bass is textured, fairly well-controlled, and surprisingly deep (capable of dropping below 30Hz).” Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl
  9. 9. 14 15 Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile Koss PortaPro and BlueAnt Embrace Open, portable, on-the-ear headphones (around $40 for standard version, and around $80 for the KTC version) Closed, portable, on-the-ear headphones ($299 and $199) There’s something--a certain je ne sais quoi—that makes Koss’ PortaPro timeless. It’s not just its looks, as looks alone might render the mighty PortaPro dated (though there’s no denying its vintage aesthetic is part of its charm). Another good around-the-ear passive isolator is the über-stylish Bowers & Wilkins’ P5 Mobile. This is a bassy headphone, and its bass defines it--heavy, just shy of sloppy by audiophile standards, but always fun. The P5 looks like something crafted by Swiss watchmakers. The P5 is so luxurious that your Despite its bassiness, the PortaPro still manages to sound coherent. Its mids and highs are good, but if you’re looking for fingers never come in contact with anything but metal or soft leather. a mid-centric and/or bright headphone, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. Also, if you’re a detail freak, walk past the PortaPro. And the P5’s style continues with its appearance when worn, its lines elegant and graceful, but bold enough to be tastefully noticeable. This year, Koss also released a version of the PortaPro called the PortaPro KTC (Koss Touch Control), which has an inline three-button remote/mic. As an iPhone/iPad/iPod user, the KTC version has become my PortaPro of choice. I was surprised How does the P5 sound? It doesn’t quite have the sound quality and detail of the top to see Koss give such a concession to smartphone modernity with a headphone as old school as the PortaPro, but I’m audiophile portables, but it still sounds very good, with a sonic signature best described as thrilled they did. Here’s the rub, though: expect to pay at least $30 to $40 more for the KTC version, which I’m guessing is smooth. The Bowers & Wilkins P5 does provide extremely effective noise isolation (passively), probably due to licensing costs associated with using the made-for-Apple three-button mic/remote design. inline controls and headset microphone, and so is a fantastic, voguish travel headphone. Looking for fun sound on the go? And served up with retro-hip style? Put the Koss PortaPro on your list. Following is a quote from my review of the Bowers & Wilkins P5: “The PortaPro is an age old design, but has held up over the years, despite newer portable cans coming along. Perhaps it is the very age of the design that keeps people coming back to it... The sound is fun. The PortaPros have a nice, punchy “The P5’s artisanal materials, fit, finish and style make sound, and great bass for a small supra-aural set of phones.” for a headphone that many of its owners will be proud Head-Fi member/reviewer TheWuss to own. Its delicate lines and light weight belie its vault-strong construction. Almost a year later, and I Koss PRODJ100 still love handling and wearing the P5. Something this Closed, full-size, portable, around-the-ear headphone (around $80) gorgeous, this well crafted, does instill that sense of pride of ownership that one might feel owning, say, a Based on recommendations in Head-Fi community discussions, I’m glad I finally experienced this headphone for myself, as it’s not just one of the best value Koss headphones I’ve heard, I think it’s one of the better headphone values in the sub- beautiful wristwatch.” $100 range, regardless of manufacturer. Was this headphone designed with DJ’s in mind? Yes. There’s even a switch on it that lets you sum both channels to mono, That the stunning looking P5 is such a huge hit isn’t the least bit surprising to me. I for one-ear listening. But do not let that “DJ” label trick you into thinking the PRODJ100 is a boomy, bloated headphone, as absolutely love this headphone, for what it is. “DJ” designated headphones more typically tend to be. The bass is impactful, but in no way overdone. If $299 is just too much a stretch for you--but the allure of the P5 is too strong to resist-- consider the BlueAnt Embrace, which I suspect may have been inspired by the P5. The PRODJ100 is a headphone that does a lot of things very well, even if it doesn’t (to my ears) do anything exceptionally well. You’ll be hard pressed to find another sub-$100 headphone that is so well-rounded, and so able to easily satisfy such From the standpoint of design, the Embrace looks like the P5’s more conservative, less a wide variety of listening preferences. If the Shure SRH440 is a bit light in the bass for you, try the Koss PRODJ100. Are extravagant sibling. The leather used on the Embrace isn’t as fancy or supple as the P5’s, but the entry-level Grados a little too lively up top for you? Try the PRODJ100. You know what, just try the PRODJ100 regardless the Embrace’s padding in the headband and earpads is more abundant, and super cushiony– of whatever other relatively affordable headphones you were already considering. its earpads are like fluffy pillows. I have to give the Embrace the edge in comfort. “The best thing about this headphone is the quality of vocals. It just sounds amazing with both male and female vocals...You In terms of sound, I prefer the P5’s brand of smoothness to the Embrace’s, although the feel like you’re right there.” Embrace’s warm signature (with mid-bass emphasis) and reasonable level of detail is both pleasant and fun. For its first foray into premium wired headphones, the Embrace is an Head-Fi member/reviewer tdockweiler impressive effort by BlueAnt (a company known for its Bluetooth headsets).
  10. 10. 16 Phiaton MS400 Philips CitiScape Downtown, Philips CitiScape Uptown, and Philips Fidelio L1 Closed, portable, around-the-ear headphone (around $230) CitiScape Downtown: Closed, full-size, on-the-ear headphone (around $150) CitiScape Uptown: Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $150) Fidelio L1: Semi-open, full-size, around-the-ear headphone (around $300) Phiaton makes some of the most striking looking headphones, and the MS 400 is, to my eyes, the most fetching of their many eye-catching designs. In a world littered with faux carbon fiber, Phiaton elected to use real carbon fiber, along with an abundance of striking Ferrari-esque red leather. Fortunately, the MS400 also sounds good. Let’s go waaay back to 2011, when Head-Fi turned a hearty ten years leaking out to bother those nearby. I haven’t examined or inquired old. Up to that point, in millions of posts, in untold thousands of to find out exactly how it works, but MusicSeal does work (and also “I’ve worn dozens of different headphones to work in the past several years and none of them gathered as dense of a threads, in ten years of online headphone chatter, Philips rarely came works to provide good isolation from outside noise). And both the stream of interest, comments, and compliments as the Phiatons do. But of course even in a portable set sound quality up in our discussions. Almost never, actually. Then, at CES 2012, Downtown and the Uptown use flat, tangle-resistant fixed cables. The should come first and the smooth and easy-going sound of the MS400 is very appealing in a portable. Like Ultrasone from seemingly out of nowhere, Philips unveiled several headphones Downtown’s cable has an inline one-button remote/mic. The Uptown’s and AKG, Phiaton seems to understand that bass notes are the first to get drowned out on a busy city street, and the that hit it out of the park. We’re talking really good headphones here. cable also has an inline one-button remote/mic, but with the MS400 do a great job of compensating. Those in search of a more analytical signature should probably look elsewhere. Affordable. Awesome. Headphones. unfortunate addition of a useless analog super-short-throw sliding For an involving, convenient, and strikingly beautiful audio experience on the go, however, the Phiatons come highly volume control. I have no idea how such a useless volume control recommended.” The ones that wowed me the most were a few of their new over-ear made it past testing on the otherwise wonderfully executed Uptown, models. The first two are from an affordable premium line of urban but it’s hardly enough to dash my recommendation of it. Head-Fi member/reviewer ljokerl headphones called CitiScape. The CitiScape Downtown (around $100) is a closed on-the-ear model very uniquely styled, with a headband A huge piece of news, in my opinion, is that the Philips Citicape wrapped in a padded cloth that looks like an elegant cravat, and line is slated to appear in not just big box electronics stores, but earpieces wrapped in a nice synthetic leather. The look, inspired by also through some major department stores. That kind of channel Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 New York casual street style, is graceful, modish, and suitable for men presence is big news with headphones that sound this good. Open, full-size, around-the-ear headphones (around $400 and $500, respectively) and women alike. The Downtown is also one of the most comfortable on-the-ear headphones I’ve used. “Fidelio” is Philips’ flagship audio brand, and the Philips Fidelio L1 (around $300) is the first of the Fidelio headphones. The Fidelio L1 Is there a more widely owned and lauded pair of headphones than the Sennheiser HD 6XX series in the world of high-end The Downtown also sounds great, with a warmish tonal balance, but is, in my opinion, maybe the single best looking sub-$500 headphone audio? And all the acclaim for these headphones is absolutely deserved, earned over many years on the market. The still nicely detailed throughout. Bass is impactful, precise beyond on the market today. To my eyes, there’s no angle—on the head or Sennheiser HD 600 and HD 650 both have sonic performance that can scale so far up in world-class rigs, I struggled with the price point, and emphasized mildly. Mids are smooth and nicely off the head—from which the Fidelio L1 doesn’t look stunning. And whether or not to include them in the Summit-Fi (high-end audio) section instead. present. Treble is on the softer side, but there’s enough of it to give it feels just as impressive, with extensive use of real leather, protein just a hint of sparkle. Closed though it is, the Downtown images well, leather and aluminum. The design is a near-perfect blend of modern Though detailed, both the HD 600 and HD 650 do not have the hyper detail that some of the newer breed of high-end too. At around $100, the Philips CitiScape Downtown is quite possibly and retro, and I still look admiringly at the L1 every single time I use it. dynamic headphones have. Still, when I’m listening to them, I don’t find myself longing for more (even though I know my favorite closed on-the-ear headphone at or under $100, providing headphones like its successor flagship HD 800 can certainly give me more). musicality and balance at a level well above its price, and with all Coming from the left earpiece is a very short length of fixed cable to genres I listen to. which can be attached two different headphone cable options, one I think the magic of these headphones is that, in terms of detail and tonality, they can be like listening to good plain, and one with a three-button remote/mic. By the way, the L1’s loudspeakers, and there’s instant comfort in that. Some find this overly laid-back, but I’m not one of them. The Philips CitiScape Uptown (around $150) is the slightly upmarket three-button remote/mic cable is one of the best of its types that I’ve sibling of the Downtown, and is a closed around-the-ear headphone. yet used, with easily distinguishable buttons, and nice positive clicks. As for what differentiates these two headphones, the HD 650 is the slightly warmer of the two, and yet I personally find it Like the Downtown, the Uptown is stylish, albeit with a completely (The Fidelio L1 cables are fabric-lined.) more refined than the HD 600, especially in the upper registers. There’s no question that there are more similarities than different, retro-cool style. The abundance of synthetic leather is nice differences, so if you’re already straining your budget, you can feel comfortable choosing the HD 600 to save some dough. looking, and attractively tufted on the headband’s underside. The Fidelio L1’s sound signature is definitely on the warmer side, but more refined, more polished than its CitiScape siblings. The L1’s In my experience, getting the best out of the HD 600 and HD 650 absolutely requires the use of good headphone Tonally, the Uptown, like the Downtown, has a warmer tendency, but bass is well north of neutral, but controlled enough to keep a lot of amplification, so make sure to feed ‘em right. does have the advantage of having a touch more sparkle in the treble. the audiophile types <raises hand> happy. The mids are bloomy and Like its sibling, the Uptown images nicely. Having used the Downtown smooth; and the treble has nice presence (though I’d prefer a more more at the beginning, switching to the Uptown revealed more of a extended sounding higher register). No, the Fidelio L1 is not a detail “I quite like the Sennheiser sonic signaure, which many people refer to as being relaxed, or veiled. I think of it as being closed-cup resonance than is present with the Downtown. It’s minor freak’s dream headphone, but still I find it, overall, a very satisfying very smooth and non-offensive. The treble and upper mids never get fatiguing or too bright, and the overall tonal balance enough, though, that it’s easy to hear past as you get accustomed to headphone to listen to. is very good, with nothing sticking out or recessed in any of the frequency ranges.” the Uptown. Sonically, which do I prefer, the Downtown or Uptown? Truth be told, it’s a toss-up for me. I also really like the Uptown, and As far as headphones go, this is definitely a breakout year for Philips. Head-Fi member/reviewer Rob Chang (Lunatique) recommend it easily at its $150 price, but I think the Downtown at only And, again, given the retail presence Philips has, these new headphones $100 is the even easier recommendation. are potentially very important for the industry, not just for Philips. Both the Downtown and the Uptown have a feature called MusicSeal, which is intended to keep the music in the headphone, and not
  11. 11. 18 19get in the game. Astro Gaming A30 beyerdynamic MMX 300 Closed, on-the-ear headset (around $130) Closed, full-size, around-the-ear headset (around $400)While my avid gaming days have www.beyerdynamic.comlong since passed, I still enjoygiving my laptop’s video card This imposing headset from beyerdynamic has earned many accolades with gamers everywhere, for combining the Popular with serious gamers—both amateurs and tournament players alike—Astro Gaming’s iconicsomething to overheat about from sound quality and durability of beyerdynamic’s famed “DT” family of audiophile and pro audio headphones, along with flaghip, the enormous A40, is probably the single most recognizable gaming headset in the world. Fortime to time. Favoring first-person the expertise in headset communications from beyerdynamic’s aviation headset products. audio enthusiasts who only dabble in gaming, though, I’d instead recommend the A40’s littler sibling, theshooters, imaging is important; Astro Gaming A30.but as rusty as I am with games The MMX 300 is among the most serious looking of all the gaming headsets I’ve seen. It may be built for somethingnowadays, it’s mostly so that I fun (gaming), but its styling seems to suggest very clearly that the MMX 300 is stony-faced serious about doing its Versus the A40, the A30’s sound signature, for music listening, is more balanced, more clear. And,know precisely from which direction job very well. actually, even for gaming, I prefer the littler Astro, in terms of imaging and clarity (especially throughdeath is raining down on me. (I the upper mids and treble). The only thing I personally favor the A40’s more for is comfort, the A40 beingalso use the headsets for telephony Like the Astro A30, the MMX 300 is a closed headphone, but offers substantially more isolation than the A30 (and, around-the-ear, and the A30 being on-the-ear—but, still, for an on-the-ear headphone, the A30 isand software speech recognition given its around-the-ear design, substantially more comfort, too). It’s important to keep in mind that it’s also a very comfortable.dictation.) large headset that doesn’t fold flat, and, even though its case is nice, the MMX 300 is still going to take up a lot of space in your bag (assuming it fits in there at all). If you’ve seen the A40, you know that, even packed into its carrying case, it’s huge. The A30, however,Here are three headsets I feel folds flat, and tucks nicely into a reasonably compact carrying case. The A30 is also just a little over halfcomfortable reccomending. The MMX 300 comes with a nice, small detachable in-line USB DAC with volume control and mute button. I like these the weight of the A40. USB converters (my Sennheiser PC 166 USB came with one), and wish all wired gaming headsets had them included. The design of the A30 is, to my eyes, very attractive for a headset, even with its boom microphone My experience with the MMX 300 is quite limited so far, but first impressions included just what I’d have expected attached. I also find it comfortable to wear for long sessions, although I’d prefer earpad material with a from beyerdynamic, which is excellent clarity, good bass, and brighter-than-neutral (but not edgy) top end. Also, the softer touch on the skin. microphone on the MMX 300 has a wider frequency response than the A30’s, so the sound from it is more broadband, more full, making the MMX 300 a candidate for podcasting duties. The A30’s boom microphone is outstanding, specifically in terms of vocal clarity, which makes it great not just for communicating in a network gaming environment, but also for internet telephony, and speech I may have to add the MMX 300 to my arsenal as my primary closed headset of choice. recognition dictation. (I get uncanny accuracy with the A30’s microphone with Dragon Dictate.) It’s important to note, however, that the A30’s microphone is tuned specifically for voice clarity, and is not a full range microphone—I would not recommend it as a podcasting headset. Sennheiser PC 360 G4ME Open, full-size, around-the-ear headset (around $250) What a lot of Head-Fi’ers don’t know is just how much experience Sennheiser has with communications products. They make countless products at the center of which is voice clarity. And, like beyerdynamic, Sennheiser also makes well-regarded aviation headsets. Now take all of their experience with the aforementioned, and couple it to Sennheiser HD5XX family sound. What do you have? A killer headset. If you’ve heard the Sennheiser HD 55X headphones, you have some idea of what to expect from the PC 360 in terms of its sound signature with music. That kind of clarity and fidelity translates well to gaming, and it’s no surprise to see some of the most serious gamers choosing audiophile-quality pieces by Sennheiser as their headsets of choice. Unfortunately, the PC 360 G4ME does not come with a USB adapter, which, again, I wish all premium wired headsets included. Though I could live without it, I’ll poach the one from my PC 166 USB to use with the PC 360 when I desire USB connectivity. I expect the Sennheiser PC 360 G4ME will be my primary open headset of choice.
  12. 12. 21about Custom-Fit customin-ear 21 Ultimate Ears PersonalIn-Ear Monitors universalFIT 26 Reference Monitor Closed, custom-voiced custom in-ear monitors ($2,000)Like a bespoke suit, custom in-ear (IEMs) are made just foryou, molded to the exact shape of A custom-fit IEM is custom-molded to your ears, so it will fit only one person in the world perfectly—you.your ears (usually by an audiologist). One would think, then, that a custom-fit IEM is already as custom as it gets. Not anymore. Ultimate EarsAnd like a custom suit, custom IEMs recently released what might reasonably be called a custom custom-fit IEM—one in which the physicalare exceptionally comfortable, and fit isn’t the only thing customized to fit you, but also the sonic fit. It’s called the Ultimate Ears Personalusually trés expensive. To my ears, Reference Monitor, and, as its name suggests, you tune it to your own personal sonic preferences.the best custom IEMs are some ofthe best sounding headphones of To accommodate this level of customization, a higher level of personal service is required. Once an orderany type currently available. for the Personal Reference Monitor is placed, the customer is assigned a personal service specialist to guide him through the fitting, design, and custom-tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor. The custom-Whichever custom you choose, tuning of the Personal Reference Monitor involves a sit-down session with a device called the Ultimateexpect to pay about an additional Ears Personal Reference Tuning Box. To start, there will be four locations in the U.S. equipped with the$50.00 to get molds of your ears Personal Reference Tuning box, in Irvine (California), Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City. If youmade at a local audiologist (that you don’t happen to be lucky enough to be an easy trip away from one of these locations, Ultimate Ears iswill then send in to the IEM maker). currently working on making the tuning experience more accessible, in more places. Simply put, my right ear is better than my left one. My right ear has greater acuity through some of the mids and treble than my left. It has been this way for years. Using the Personal Reference Tuning Box, I tuned my Personal Reference Monitor to help compensate for my left ear’s deficiency (versus my right). I also tuned the tonal balance to be neutral’ish, but with just a touch more bass than neutral, more emphasis on the mids for greater midrange presence and bloom, and just a hair’s breadth above neutral in the treble region. The resulting monitors—my Personal Reference Monitor—is now my favorite of all my custom in-ear monitors, imaging better (perhaps because of the left-right compensation), and suiting my preferences more closely than any other custom in-ear I currently have. I strongly recommend the Ultimate Ears Personal Reference Monitor for anyone who’s wanted to try compensating for differences between one’s ears, and/or for anyone simply interested in reaching a higher level of customizability in custom in-ear monitors. (For more details about the product and the process, click here.) 21
  13. 13. 22 23 Ultimate Ears Custom In-Ear Reference Monitor FitEar MH334 Closed, custom in-ear monitors ($999) Closed, custom in-ear monitors ($1,800) As UE (Ultimate Ears) puts it, the three-drivers-per-side Custom In-Ear Reference Monitor is designed for “professional I thought I was aware of all the top custom-fit IEM makers. On a recent trip to Tokyo, however, the gentlemen at Fujiya Avic studio engineers and producers for use during recording, mixing and mastering original music content. Other applications (a store every Tokyo-bound Head-Fi’er must visit) asked me to listen to a demo model of the FitEar MH334. To say the least, include front of the house venue tuning, live recording and mixing. This is also an excellent product for the audiophile or I was impressed with what I heard. The next day, at the Tokyo Headphone Festival (which is put on by Fujiya Avic), I was serious music listener because of its natural and authentic sound reproduction.” fitted for my very own custom MH334. Given that description, it shouldn’t be surprising that the IERM is the most neutral-sounding custom IEM I’ve heard. Both When it arrived, the build quality was the first thing I noticed, including the flawless bubble-free transparent main bass extension and treble extension sound excellent to me, the entire audioband presented without emphasis. The IERM earpiece bodies and the well-dressed internal wiring. is one of my neutral references, and perhaps the most neutral of all my headphones (regardless of type). As such, it is my sonic palate cleanser—after listening to more colored gear for extended periods, I can always count on the IERM to remind Wearing the MH334 revealed the best isolating custom-fit IEM I’ve yet used. I don’t know if its particularly outstanding me what neutral sounds like. isolation is due to a perfect fit, something specific to the MH334’s construction, or both. Imaging is also one of its strengths, the IERM edging out most of the other custom IEMs I use, in terms of presenting a And the sound! Voiced by one of Japan’s top mastering engineers, the four-drivers-per-side MH334 is the best-sounding convincing, cohesive soundstage. IEM I have heard driven straight from my iPhone 4S (compared to others driven similarly), a nearly perfect blend of revealing and smooth, impactful and balanced. I’m looking forward to also using it in a wide variety of externally-amped If you’re in the market for a custom IEM, and pure neutrality is your goal, the IERM would be my first recommendation. portable rigs. “All in all the UERM has a place among the other custom IEMs I have heard in the price range as it offers a reference Currently available only direct from FitEar, the only negative I’ve got for the FitEar MH334 is its price, which, as of this sound with an exceptional presentation; a combo I have not heard up to this point in a custom IEM. Combine that with writing, translates to $1908! I’m hoping FitEar soon finds broader distribution, as they may be poised to shake things up in the accessories and cable and the UERM stands up well with the competition.” the custom-fit IEM market, if this MH334 is any indication. Head-Fi member/reviewer average_joe “The detail and imaging is fantastic.” Head-Fi member/reviewer Sean (AnakChan) Westone ES5 Closed, custom in-ear monitors ($999) “These are some of the most transparent and linear IEMs I’ve experienced. These are not basshead IEMs. They are not colored or “fun,” but rather extremely accurate in conveying a recording. You wont get a single bit of extra bass emphasis beyond what is there in a given track. That being said, tracks with a lot of bass are still rendered well, and I think the TG If your tonal preference is more toward neutral, but not entirely so, then Westone’s flagship five-drivers-per-side ES5 is a 334 handles most genres with ease.” fantastic choice. It is more neutral than the JH13 Pro, but with richer midrange than UE’s IERM. In terms of detail retrieval, it is on par with the other flagships. Head-Fi member/reviewer MuppetFace Other major selling points of the ES5 include its comfort and isolation. Westone’s ES series of custom IEMs all have the Westone heat-activated “flex canal,” which makes my ES5 one of the most comfortable IEMs I’ve worn. That soft tip also results in better isolation than most of my other custom-fit IEMs provide. Also, Westone’s ES5 packaging is second-to-none, with a Pelican case, and a very cool dessicant cylinder fitted to the interior of that case (to help keep your ES5 dry). “I would without a doubt recommend the Westone ES5 to anyone looking for a well balanced high-end custom IEM as I feel they are simply breathtaking.” Head-Fi member/reviewer Tronz
  14. 14. 24 25 JH Audio JH13 Pro and JH16 Pro Unique Melody Merlin Closed, custom in-ear monitors (starting at $1,099 and $1,149, respectively) Closed, custom in-ear monitors ($779) Only three years old, but already a legend, JH Audio’s JH13 Pro is coming up against several new competitors in the cost- I haven’t yet heard anything made by Unique Melody. But the guys from UM came all the way from Australia to exhibit at no-object custom in-ear monitor realm, but it’s still the first custom IEM I recommend for those who aren’t quite sure what 2011 CanJam @ Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver; and several people whose ears I trust did listen to their demos in their preferred sound signature is. Why? Because I find most people prefer mildly emphasized bass, which the JH13 Pro Denver and told me very good things about what they’d heard. has, along with neutral mids and treble, and quite possibly unmatched treble extension in an in-ear monitor. The JH13 Pro sports six balanced armature drivers per side. I felt compelled, then, to search the forums to see how Unique Melody was faring within our community, and the answer is very well, to say the least. The JH16 Pro is the go-to custom for those who want more strongly emphasized bass (emphasis that Jerry Harvey made sure to tune way down low, as it should be, and in such a manner that it leaves the mids virtually untouched). The JH16 One of their products that I find fascinating, in concept, is the Merlin custom-fit IEM. Sporting a driver combination I think Pro--because of that perfectly executed bass emphasis--is my go-to custom IEM for air or train travel, as extra bass is is entirely unique to it, the Merlin has five drivers per side, four of which are balanced armatures, and one of which is a big always welcome in the din of those environments. dynamic driver. The Merlin is promoted as “a bit of a sidestep from [Unique Melody’s] house sound signature and heads on into the world of unabated fun.” The dynamic bass driver takes things down to 10Hz. Each JH16 Pro earpiece contains eight balanced armature drivers. Yes, eight. How Jerry Harvey coaxes complete cohesiveness from that many drivers (and, trust me, he does) is one of Head-Fi’s great mysteries, as far as I’m concerned. At RMAF, one of my buddies, grinning big, said of the Merlin, “Did you hear the bass on those things?!” I didn’t, but I’ll be sure not to miss it next time. “If you are in the market for a high-end headphone, stereo system, monitors for mixing, or custom IEM’s, you should “This high end hybrid custom delivers on its promise of outstanding bass performance with very natural and well consider the JH Audio JH 13 Pro. The accuracy and stereo imaging you get with the JH 13 Pro’s are worth every penny you balanced mids and highs. Soundstage is phenomenal and the entire presentation is somewhat unique.” can find. I know that the JH 13 Pro will make people rethink their collective headphones, if not customs in general - I Head-Fi member/reviewer John Grandberg (project86) know I have.” Head-Fi member/reviewer Nicholas (Audiofiler) “The JH16 gives new meaning to bass with a performance that combines enhancement with dynamics, detail, punch, speed, and rumble. Instrument detail is plentiful across the spectrum with an added liquidity to the vocal range and an enhancement in the upper mids/lower treble that accentuates the clarity. Soundstage width is great and competes with/ bests similarly priced custom IEMs I have heard.” Head-Fi member/reviewer average_joe
  15. 15. 26 WESTONE 4R Closed, in-ear monitor (around $500) The Westone 4R is one of my favorite universal-fit IEMs (in-ear monitors), especially when I’m looking for a more tonally flat sound signature. And the 4R’s detail retrieval is outstanding from bottom to top. Across the audioband, the Westone 4R does not provide any specific area of emphasis, and certainly no over-emphasis. Bass extends low, but without any extra weight imparted by the 4R. Though detailed throughout, I find the 4R’s midrange detail to be one of its greatest strengths--again, without any emphasis imparted to achieve it. The treble balance is also excellent, with enough to provide some sparkle, but never enough to impart any edginess. The 4R also is very comfortable to wear, with a surprisingly compact chassis (considering there are four drivers per side). Like Westone’s other universal-fit IEMs, it sits very flat in the ear, which results in an IEM that can be worn while laying your head down. Put the Westone 4R at or near the top of your list if you’re looking for a more neutral sound signature, but look elsewhere if you prefer tonal emphasis of any kind (like bumped-up bass), as that’s not what this IEM is about. I have both the Westone 4 and the Westone 4R, and they sound the same to me. From what I can tell, the key difference is that the Westone 4’s cable is permanently affixed, whereas the 4R’s cable is detachable. “The new W4’s find themselves at the top of BA universal heap, having Dynamic Driver quality timbre; Drums sound absolutely amazing on the W4. If you are looking for superb balance and refined detail retrieval, give the Westone 4 a try!” Head-Fi member/reviewer Shawn (Shotgunshane) Portable Headphone Amps Designed for IEMs In-ear monitors (whether universal-fit or custom-fit) often have a couple of things in common: high sensitivity and good isolation from ambient noise. This presents an interesting challenge to those devices driving them. Whether an external headphone amplifier or the built-in headphone output of your digital audio player (be it a dedicated portable media player or smartphone), many IEMs will quickly reveal any noise in the audio chain, as well as any channel imbalance (especially at the lowest part of the volume range). Three of most popular designed-for-IEM portable headphone amps in the Head-Fi community are the TTVJ Slim ($349), HeadAmp Pico Slim ($399), and the Ray Samuels Audio Shadow ($395). These amps maintain perfect channel balance at any volume level, and virtually background-noise-free performance. featured portable amps All three of these portable amps accomplish this with the use of stepped volume (from left to right) controls and special attention to low circuit noise. Ray Samuels Audio Shadow “ [The Pico Slim] is a very smooth and refined sounding portable, without any Headamp Pico Slim edge or grain, and good extension in the bass and treble.” TTVJ Slim Head-Fi member/reviewer HeadphoneAddict