Like them or not, Beats by Dr. Dre can take credit for lighting a fire under the headphone market. Manufacturers of much better headphones and associated gear are now reaping the benefits as consumers explore better alternatives. While the bulk of consumers’ attention seems to be on the portables market, the increased focus on high-performance audio has also shone a light on the burgeoning market in headphone amplifiers, and buyers are taking notice.
Right now, the hottest action in the amplification segment is in the category of headphone amp-preamplifier-DAC, with examples from Benchmark Media, Grace Design, and Antelope Audio (among others) receiving rave reviews. Charging into this space is Oppo Digital, already well known for their excellent-sounding universal disc/streaming players, with their HA-1 headphone amplifier ($1199 USD).
As usual, however, Oppo has not been content to create another me-too product. The HA-1 contains some notable differences from the rest of the herd.
Samsung Level In measurements can be found by clicking this link.
If someone told you that Samsung was offering new earphones and asked you what you thought they might be like, you’d probably guess a rather ordinary design with a generic dynamic driver and decent sound, for $30 or $40, right? Wrong. Like practically every other TV company lured by the promise of more lucrative margins than the 0.01% profit (give or take a few hundredths of a percent) now common in the TV biz, Samsung is pushing into higher-end audio products. Their new earphones, the Level In, cost a substantial $149.99 USD and are anything but generic.
The Level In -- part of Samsung’s new Level line of mildly upscale portable audio products (which they call “wearable tech”) -- is a pair of three-way hybrid earphones. Each earpiece contains one dynamic driver (basically, a tiny speaker, with a voice-coil, etc.) and two balanced-armature drivers (basically, a little teeter-totter suspended in a magnetic field and connected to a diaphragm). The dynamic driver is there to deliver strong, low-distortion bass, and the armatures to lend delicacy and detail to the midrange and treble. It’s like having a tiny three-way speaker in your ear.
A hybrid design is not an automatic path to sonic nirvana. Samsung had to cram three drivers into an enclosure barely larger than that of a typical dynamic earphone. Then they had to get the sound from the different drivers to blend inside a tiny acoustical chamber without introducing music-marring resonances.
Brainwavz S5 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Proof that headphone enthusiasts are a little different from other audiophiles can be found in the very name of the Brainwavz S5 earphones. Could you imagine a $10,000/pair speaker coming from a company called Brainwavz? If you had that name on your room at the Festival Son et Image or Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I bet most showgoers would silently slip past your door, assuming you’d actually intended to exhibit at the skateboarding show a week earlier.
But Brainwavz has been racking up glowing, five-star reviews on headphone-enthusiast sites, mainstream tech sites, and on Amazon.com, where the new S5 ($129.50 USD) is averaging 4.8 out of 5 stars.
What’s special about the S5? Nothing. That’s not a criticism. If you look at the products page on the Brainwavz site, you’ll find no fewer than 15 completely different earphone models, some of which will probably look familiar. While almost all earphones are actually designed and manufactured by Chinese vendors you’ve never heard of, most of the companies under whose brands the ’phones are sold have a lot of input on the acoustical and industrial design -- and, of course, the more input they have, the higher their cost, and yours. Brainwavz seems to take a different approach, cherry-picking the best designs from original-design manufacturers (ODMs) and making only minor cosmetic modifications. How much tuning of these designs does Brainwavz do? Only Brainwavz and the ODMs know for sure. We do know, though, that both approaches can yield excellent earphones . . . and horrible ones, too.
KEF M200 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Ever since the appearance of headphones from Beats by Dre, the gourmet head- and earphone industry has flourished. In the last few years, practically every big name in hi-fi has released its take on what a high-end headphone should be. Bowers & Wilkins, Cardas, Klipsch, MartinLogan, NAD, Paradigm, Polk, PSB -- even Musical Fidelity. I would have thought that the market would already be saturated, yet only recently has the British company KEF, one of audio’s biggest and most-respected names, launched its first headphone models. I suspected that this was due either to caution, or a lack of deep interest in headphones. Neither turned out to be the case.
When iTunes was launched, KEF looked at the MP3 market and chose not to enter it. But studio-quality material has changed all that. So has public opinion about expensive headphones. KEF spent two-and-a-half years in research and tests before bringing out the M500 supraaural headphones ($299.99 USD) and the subject of this review, the M200 in-ear ’phones ($199.99). That’s a long time in this business -- KEF clearly wasn’t interested in rushing to market with a me-too product, but rather wanted to offer headphones that represent what this innovative company can do. Consider their flagship loudspeaker: KEF began designing the Blade in 1998, but it didn’t go into production until 2011. Anyone who’s heard the Blade will probably agree that it’s far sweeter than just about anything else on the market. The M200s promised a lot for $199.99, but would they actually be any better than the dozens of alternatives already available for about the same price?
Definitive Technology is one of my favorite loudspeaker manufacturers -- not only because the company is innovative, but because its speaker line consists of models that punch way above their price class. Not many other speakers costing only $1998 USD per pair can boast the full-range performance of my reference DefTech BP-8060ST towers. Not only that, they sound fantastic throughout their 20Hz-30kHz frequency response, and their footprint is very small. What’s not to like?
One of my least favorite consumer-electronics categories is computer speakers -- to me, almost all of them sound bad. I remember hooking up a pair of plastic computer speakers through 1/8” minijacks to my computer’s soundcard -- an experience memorable for all the wrong reasons. So when Editor-in-Chief Jeff Fritz asked if I wanted to review Definitive Technology’s Inclines, I was at first apprehensive when I heard the phrase desktop speakers -- it sounded to me like computer speakers. But this was Definitive Technology, and I was intrigued to hear what the company could do in this category. And the Incline’s price of $399/pair set my expectations high.
Oppo Digital PM-1 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Oppo Digital is best known in North America as a manufacturer of high-quality DVD and Blu-ray players. In fact, many reviewers will suggest that consumers interested in disc players start, and usually end, their search with a model from Oppo. And in 2014, Oppo entered the thriving personal-audio arena with a DAC-headphone amplifier, the HA-1 ($1199 USD), and two headphone models: the PM-2 ($699) and the subject of this review, the PM-1 ($1099).
Like the very well-regarded models from Audeze and HiFiMAN, Oppo’s PM models are planar-magnetic designs. As in dynamic loudspeakers, the drivers in dynamic headphones consist of a conical or dome-shaped diaphragm with a coil of wire affixed to it, this assembly sitting in front of a permanent magnet. Current passing through the coil induces a magnetic force that interacts with the magnet to drive the coil and diaphragm back and forth. In a planar-magnetic driver, a conductive path is bonded directly to a thin membrane, which is placed in a field generated by multiple permanent magnets, usually placed on both sides of the diaphragm. Current along the conductive path again creates magnetic flux to move the diaphragm. All else being equal, the lower mass of the planar-magnetic diaphragm will let it respond more quickly and accurately than a dynamic driver. Driving the planar-magnetic diaphragm over its entire area also reduces breakup modes, improves phase coherence, and reduces distortion. The diaphragms of planar magnetics also tend to be larger than those found in dynamic headphones, which means they will move more air for a given displacement. The PM-1s’ oval diaphragms each measure 85 x 69mm, giving them a radiating area nearly four times that of a 40mm circular diaphragm, and 15% larger than that of the Audeze headphones.
Astell&Kern has made quite a rumble with its earlier models of portable media players, the AK100 and AK120. With the AK240 they’ve created a model that seems to know no bounds. It’s a high-quality piece that you won’t be ashamed to plug into your main audio system, yet you can carry it with you almost anywhere. And it costs a bundle -- $2499 USD.
Inside a classy black slipcase of construction paper is a box of black wood, and nestled inside that is the Astell&Kern AK240. Printed on the back of the slipcase, in lieu of the usual ad copy, are, in several languages, a brief description of the AK240 and its specifications. Lifting the player out of the box reveals two compartments. In one is a leather case; in the other are a USB-to-USB Micro charging cord a little over 3’ long, a quick-start guide, and warranty information, the latter in very small type that I found hard to read without a magnifying glass. There’s no printed instruction manual -- you have to go online and download it. One year (90 days for accessories) seems an awfully short warranty period for such an expensive portable media device.
The case is made of Minerva leather, tanned in Italy, and carries an official seal and certificate number to guarantee its authenticity. As it ages, it reveals unique veins and wrinkles, and feels soft yet durable in the hand. What impressed me most was that, even after I’d removed and reinserted the AK240 in its case a dozen times, it still fit the AK240 like a glove; it hadn’t stretched.
NAD Viso HP50 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
New Acoustic Dimension, aka NAD, is a brand well known to audiophiles. Beginning in the late 1970s with the 3020 integrated amplifier, the once-British, now-Canadian company has developed a reputation for solid-performing, high-value electronics. Like many other manufacturers, NAD is now moving beyond its traditional two-channel audio and home-theater products to address, with its Viso products, the booming market of compact desktop and personal audio gear. A recent addition to the range are the HP50 headphones ($299 USD).
Why is an electronics company making headphones? NAD is part of the Lenbrook Group, which also includes loudspeaker manufacturer PSB. The HP50 shares its DNA with PSB’s well-regarded M4U 1 and M4U 2 headphones, which designer Paul Barton developed using the resources available at Canada’s National Research Council.
Bowers & Wilkins P7 measurements can be found by clicking this link.
Bowers & Wilkins, the iconic British speaker manufacturer, made their first foray into nontraditional hi-fi with the Zeppelin iPod speaker dock. That product was a great success with their established customers who wanted a small and simple one-box system for a second room, but perhaps more important, it introduced the brand to a whole new demographic. In 2010, B&W unveiled their first headphone design, the P5, which also proved successful with critics and consumers. They followed that up in 2011 with the in-ear C5, which included some genuine innovations in terms of both fit and sound signature. In 2012 came the lightweight, on-ear P3, and in late 2013 B&W introduced their first full-sized, over-the-ear headphone model, the P7, which retails for $399.99 USD.
Bowers & Wilkins’ industrial-design team knows not only how to make an attractive product, but also the importance of unified brand styling. In many ways, the P7s look like a bigger version of the P3s. The rounded, oblong earcups are leather wrapped, and the brushed-aluminum metal ovals that extend out from the center of each have black-anodized end caps with the "Bowers and Wilkins" name engraved. A pair of stiff, stainless-steel wires swoop back and up to connect the earcups to the headband via sturdy metal hinges that allow the cups to fold up for carriage. This arrangement makes for minimal materials and clutter, without the headphones feeling at all fragile. Instead of a plastic case, B&W provides a semirigid pouch that is leatherette on the outside and quilted inside. Taste in such things varies, but I found the total P7 package classier than that of any of its competitors that I’ve seen.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my CD collection. Even after tossing jewel boxes, tray cards, and booklets -- and, after ripping them -- I still have a lot of CDs. But basically, they’re worthless -- except to me. Then there’s the collection of songs stored on my computer. They’re mostly Apple Lossless files, but also 256kbps MP3s I’ve purchased, and even some AAC files ripped at 128kbps before I knew better, and at every rate in between. I think a lot about that collection, too. I also think a lot about putting my collections aside in favor of a streaming service, such as Spotify, which would allow me to act on my impulses to hear albums or songs I don’t own, but would discourage me from spending needlessly to achieve the same goal. J&R Music World is closed, and I don’t feel so good myself.
Apparently, Simon Lee of April Music, in South Korea, thinks about these things too. Because with his newly improved Aura Note “all-in-one music center,” the V2, he’s thought of just about everything.