by John Grandberg
“Why headphones?” It’s a question I hear often. I’d like to start by pointing out that headphone listening is in no way exclusive – I know many headphone enthusiasts who also have killer speaker-based systems. One does not preclude the other. That being said, there’s often a reason why people gravitate towards headphone listening. In my case, several reasons. First, my work schedule often results in me coming home late or having an otherwise wacky schedule where I’m up while my family sleeps. Definitely not the time to blast Dark Side of the Moon at concert levels. Headphones allow me to enjoy music at any time of the day or night, without bothering everyone else. Baby needs a nap? Older one has homework? Wife has a headache? None of these are problems for the headphone listener. That benefit is reason enough for some people to get on board.
The other aspect has to do with room acoustics. Mine just aren’t very good. I’ve tried many of the latest room correction devices and though some of them are quite good, there’s simply no replacement for the real thing. In my particular case, the problem is compounded by the fact that I can’t pull the speakers very far out from the wall – for various reasons, but let’s just say it’s non-negotiable. That puts me at even more of a disadvantage since most speakers really need some breathing room to sound their best. Don’t get me wrong – the room is certainly not the only thing keeping me from running some behemoth six figure speakers. But I wouldn’t mind having one of the Salk Soundscape models, maybe some big Revels or Tannoys, or EgglestonWorks, Rockports, Focal Utopia series…. yummy. I could go on, but since none of these would sound very good in my room, why bother? For me, the answer comes in the form of the diminutive Sjöfn HiFi (the clue) monitors. As the spiritual successor to the popular Guru QM10, the Sjöfn monitors are designed to back right up to the wall, to the point where they almost touch it. Since they actually work with the room instead of struggling against it, these little $999 wonders actually do better than any of the far more expensive speakers I’ve tried in there. I have a few more options I might investigate when I have the time — perhaps the Von Schweikert VR-22 or the latest incarnation of the Klipsch Cornwall. But for now I’m incredibly pleased with the sound I’m getting.
Still, I wouldn’t consider it “reference caliber”. As good as they are, the Sjöfn monitors don’t compete with really expensive speakers in really well treated rooms. They just can’t. But hey – guess what can compete? Headphones! That’s right, headphones. By taking the room out of the equation all together, headphones are the great equalizer for me. They make it possible for me to hear truly world-class sound despite my acoustically challenged living space. And I can switch one world-class model for another whenever I feel like it – try that with a few different sets of expensive speakers. Of course, headphones have a different presentation compared to speakers. In my opinion: not better, not worse … just different.
But that’s a topic for another day.
Headphone listening has a dirty little secret though. Wanna hear it? Come on, scoot in close and I’ll tell you. Remember my first point about headphones? Where they don’t bother people around you? Well, the dirty secret is…. that’s not really true. At least not all the time. Nobody really talks about this, but I feel I should point it out for those who haven’t yet started their HeadFi journey. The best headphones out there are usually open-back designs. What that means is the drivers are pretty much open to the outside world. So while the room acoustics don’t mar your listening experience, you’ll still hear the neighbor mowing his lawn, or dogs barking, or the dishwasher running, or kids watching cartoons in the next room…. basically there’s very little noise attenuation. Which of course can lead to cranking the volume in order to help drown that stuff out. But as the volume rises, so too does the sound leakage. Leakage? Sounds gross right? Basically what that means is this: while you enjoy your Leonard Cohen at 85dB or so, with peaks maybe hitting in the mid 90dB range, the folks within earshot get to hear it as well. It’s not a front row seat to the show, but definitely still intrusive on their end. So maybe they talk louder or turn up the TV so they can hear what they want to hear. Which leads to you cranking the volume even higher, which eventually leads to you sleeping on the couch.
This is the exact scenario you probably thought you’d avoid by using headphones right? Yet here we are, crossing most of the best models off our collective lists. Sennheiser HD800? Nope. Audeze LCD-3? Nuh-uh. HiFiMAN HE-6? You wish. Any of the top Stax Electrostatic models? Not likely pal. But don’t worry – there’s still a glimmer of hope, in the form of closed-back headphones.
Closed back headphones, otherwise known as “sealed”, are just like the name implies. The cup is completely solid meaning little to no sound should escape when listening at sane levels. Most headphone guides will tell you these types aren’t as good as open models and to some extent I’d agree with that – but thankfully, there are some exceptions. I’m here to break them down for you.
This is article is part one of a two-part series. Today we’ll cover some affordable models, and next time we’ll talk expensive, reference quality stuff. I’m drawing the “affordable” line at $400 because it’s a nice round number, and since I’m the author I can do whatever I want. So there. As you’ll see, most of the lower-priced options are closer to $300 and most of the higher priced models are far more than $500. So the exact cutoff isn’t really critical. I basically tried to capture two different classes — the first, more affordable group, is one which might be picked up by necessity or impulse. Maybe someone wanted to try headphones but didn’t want to jump in head first with a huge expenditure. These aren’t outrageously expensive but can still be very engaging and worthwhile to use, and it helps that they don’t require substantial investment in amplification. The next group is more for people who are ready to go all the way, to spend the equivalent of a nice set of speakers on this endeavor, and who are also ready to support their purchase with a suitably high quality dedicated amplifier. But I’ll talk more about that next time.
There are quite a few options to choose from when talking closed headphones in the sub-$500 range. A lot of them suck. Plenty more are just mediocre. We’ll ignore those completely and focus on the ones I feel are worth looking into. These models, in no particular order, include the Alpha Design Labs H118, AKG K551, V-MODA M100, Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs, Focal Spirit Pro, and the Spider Audio Moonlight. Note that this is not all of the worthwhile, closed headphones in this segment. But it is a good enough sampling to get started with. Some models were too recent to get a review sample in time for this article (B&W P7 for example). Others looked good but had unwanted extras like noise canceling which is not really the focus here – that sort of technology adds weight and cost, which makes for an unfair comparison if we don’t intend to use it anyway. Many more have the type of design where the pads don’t completely fit over the ears, but rather sit partially on the ears. I don’t know about you, but for listening at home that type just doesn’t fly with me. A good example of this is the Sennheiser Momentum. While it’s technically an over the ear headphone (they have a separate on-ear version as well), and it looks/sounds very nice, I personally don’t find it comfortable for extended use. So it’s off the list for me (but maybe not for you). The V-MODA M100 initially ships with standard pads which do touch my ears, but their XL pads are available for $20 extra and totally surround my ears, making them far more suitable for me. So that model does make the list. See how that works?
There are differing schools of thought when it comes to associated equipment in a review. Some folks like to use absolute statement class amps and sources no matter what; even when reviewing a budget product. $400 monitor speakers need reviewing? Sure, bring out the $25k CD player, $40k preamp, and $70k monoblocks! We can be sure we get every last ounce of performance out of those budget monitors, since nothing else in the system is a bottleneck. I guess I see a certain logic in that thinking. The other approach is to use gear that would most likely be paired with the item being reviewed. In this case, the hypothetical $400 monitors would be driven by an affordable integrated from the likes of NAD or Marantz. It’s a real world application and it definitely makes sense. Me? I sort of split the difference. In this review I used a MacBook Air connected to the Resonessence Labs Concero HP which is a killer $850 all in one DAC/headphone amp unit. It’s related to the Concero HD which I covered here. I used a relatively inexpensive Wireworld Ultraviolet USB cable for connection, and the latest version of the Audirvana Plus software configured to integer mode 1. I played tons of music from “basic” CD quality FLAC or Apple Lossless, to hi-res PCM, DSD, even a bit of DXD for good measure. Even this setup may be a tad bit of overkill, but I figure we want a very clean signal and an exceptional amplifier if we are to hear what these headphones are truly capable of. Yet I didn’t go way overboard with some massively expensive rig — let’s save that for Part Two where I cover the flagship models.
Since I’m fairly long-winded as it is, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about accessories. If the cable or carrying case (or whatever) stands out, either in a good or bad way, I’ll mention it. If you don’t hear about that stuff then just assume lands on par for the course. Manufacturer and retailer websites usually give comprehensive lists and/or pictures showing all that stuff anyway.
So let’s get to it.
Starting things out in this collection is the K551 from Austrian firm AKG. They’ve been around for a loooong time making pro audio gear like headphones and microphones, and have become well respected in the audiophile community for their upscale headphones. Their K1000 model was a radical design that became something of a cult classic, and their K701 and variants are traditionally some of the most common “reference” models for HiFi reviewers who don’t typically specialize in headphones.
The K551 (along with the K550 which is basically the same thing with more color options, and without the inline remote/mic … I’m using them interchangeably) is the top sealed headphone in AKGs lineup. The marketing materials refer to K550 family as being “Reference” class – there was a time when the near $400 msrp would indeed make it one of the more expensive headphones out there. These days, flagship models consistently break into the 4-digit price range, while the K550 family routinely sells for significantly less than the suggested retail price ($229 is not uncommon from authorized dealers like HeadRoom). The K550 came out first and is easier to find at a discount compared to the K551 — aside from the colors and the cable, their specs are identical.
The first thing that jumps out about the K551 is the physical presentation – even the box screams “classy”. The high-brow experience continues once the package is opened; the K551 is an absolute beauty. If I didn’t already know the price, I would have assumed these things went for a lot more cash. The majority of the frame, headband, and cups are made from metal. The pads are a nice simulated leather – I usually dislike pleather but these are actually quite nice. The pads seem to be filled with memory foam which makes for a very comfy experience. It helps that these have less clamping force than a lot of other headphones on the market. I’ve got a rather large cranium and even for me, the K551 sits somewhat loosely. This is great for us big-headed people but I can see it being a problem for someone with a smaller dome. The cable is fine, though I always prefer them to be detachable to allow for easy upgrades or just to replace if they get damaged.
I have to say a quick word about the fit of these things. Now, comfort is definitely subjective. But beyond comfort, there’s a certain requirement for maintaining a seal. And the K551, with its large cups and somewhat loose fit, seems very susceptible to sonic variation. I can put them on a certain way and cause a poor seal which results in sub-par sound. And I can even move them back and forth a bit, maintaining a good seal but giving somewhat different results as they move from one position to the next. So I can absolutely see why there’s been a lot of disagreement about how these really sound.
Now, about that sound … I like these. A lot. The presentation is largely neutral — no massive, boomy bass or zingy highs to be found. I do think they have a slight warm tilt, and low-frequency reproduction could be considered one of their strongest points. But it’s more a matter of quality than quantity and I don’t find them overdone in the least. In fact I think most headphone users prefer just a slightly tipped up bass response, so the K551 seems pretty ideal in that respect. It goes just far enough to be a bit “fun” without veering too far from neutral. Some people won’t be satisfied by the levels (we call these people bassheads for a reason right?) but I think most should be impressed with the texture and impact on display here. It doesn’t compete with the best out there, but among this field it stands mighty tall, taking a clear back seat only to the Mr Speakers Mad Dogs (and the comparison is unfair anyway, since those utilize a completely different type of driver). Once in a while I thought I sensed a lack of focus or control when dealing with nuanced instruments such as double bass or cello. But then I had to stop myself and consider the context: these ain’t $1K flagships, so expectations need to match the field of competitors in this price class.
Vocals are often a weak spot on sealed models. It’s not uncommon for singers to have that weird, almost boomy sound to their voices, which you know isn’t really supposed to be there. Other times you get a “cupped-hand” effect where everything seems muffled and closed off. The K551 avoids those issues and manages to sound nicely open despite being a sealed model. Overall midrange clarity is pretty good here, and I’d say these are accurate enough to be used for monitoring purposes in a home studio situation. At the same time they are engaging enough to be enjoyed by the casual music lover — they aren’t overly dry or analytical, despite veering a little in that direction compared to some others in this group.
My biggest gripe with the K551 is the top-end. Most of the time it sounds fine. It’s fairly refined, not too grainy, has good extension and air, perhaps a bit artificial sounding at times but mostly pleasing enough … So what’s the problem? In a word, peaks. As I said, most of the time everything is fine. Music sounds golden. But once in a while I get a rather unwelcome peak which can be very grating once I notice it. The interesting thing is that the treble is otherwise pretty benign — when I said the work “peak” I bet you immediately thought of bright, glaringly accentuated treble that dominates the entire presentation. That’s not actually the case though. It’s just that sometimes a cymbal or trumpet or violin will go sideways and cause me to question the entire experience I had been having (and enjoying) with these things. And then, as quickly as it came, the problem disappears as I play the next track. Weird.
I know I’m a professional and I’m supposed to tell you what to think — that’s how the Internet works, right? In this case though, I find it worthwhile to point out some of the other reviews of the K550. Mike at Headfonia seems to have really enjoyed them and didn’t mention any treble issues. Brent Butterworth of Sound and Vision liked them a lot but did occasionally hear the same issue that I do, referring to it as a “narrow brightness band”. My pal Tyll Hertsens at InnerFidelity liked the K550 enough to give them top honors on his Wall of Fame. He had some mild treble trouble as well, but found it slightly indistinct rather than harsh. See numerous user reviews at HeadFi for continued examples of most people enjoying these but some finding them painful or just a little “odd” up top.
I think the key here lies in the measurements done by Tyll. Look at the frequency response chart (upper left of the page). Notice the uncompensated raw data which appears as the grey lines. That represents 5 different takes, where each time the headphone was freshly placed on the measurement dummy and remeasured. Notice the variations involved. Pick any frequency and you can see differences of up to 5dB from one pass to the next. Most other headphones show more consistent results, with a majority of the variation being limited to the lowest frequencies. This indicates the K550 (and identical K551) is very sensitive to placement – it really does sound different for each person, based on their unique head shape and how well the headphones fit on that head. The alternative theory is that AKG has a high degree of variability from unit to unit. That’s very possible, but I have no way of knowing one way or the other, nor do I have a way of accounting for it other than saying “good luck, I hope you get a good one!” So I’m sticking by my original theory since the measurements seem to back it up.
What does that mean for you? Well, I stand by my original conclusion that these are generally very good sounding headphones. Build quality and aesthetic design are among the best in this class, and sound quality is certainly competitive. If you like a mostly neutral, maybe very slightly warmish sound that isn’t overly clinical, the K551 could just be the one for you. And yet I’m totally willing to concede that some people won’t get the same results when they try these — I totally get it. I suggest buying from a dealer who allows a 30-day in home trial, just to guard against cranial-incompatibility. The larger your head, the more likely you are to be impressed.
Next in our collection is the M100 ($310) from V-MODA. Never heard of ’em? That’s understandable, as V-MODA doesn’t really do much in the traditional, oldschool audiophile market. But they have been around the headphone scene for a long time. For a while it was more “lifestyle” oriented stuff but for the past few years V-MODA has been on a roll with some pretty serious stuff coming down the pike. CEO Val Kolton has become something of a staple on the HeadFi forums, hanging around, answering questions, soliciting opinions, and really trying to nail down what exactly his target market is after. Then, he takes the important step of actually delivering what they want. Pretty cool if you ask me.
The M100 makes an interesting comparison against the AKG K551. It’s also ridiculously well packaged, smartly designed, and impeccably executed. Yet the two models are nothing alike. While AKG goes for class, V-MODA focuses on…. I don’t know. Something else. It’s kind of hip but not in a hipster way. It’s got a high-tech vibe but doesn’t really look “gadgety”. It’s definitely stylish but doesn’t quite look like a “lifestyle” product where appearance is the main focus. Take a look at the pictures and you’ll see what I mean. While the K551 might be called sophisticated or classy, the M100 is more youthful, more fun, and definitely more rugged looking thanks to the angular features. Despite the differences in focus, the M100 is definitely impressive in its own right. It’s arguably the most bulletproof model of this entire bunch, and it has some really great touches that showcase how Val Kolton really sweats the small stuff. An example is the cable – it’s a quality single entry cable that can be inserted into either the left or the right cup. Most headphones choose for you and it may not be the choice you prefer. V-MODA even includes little plugs for the side that isn’t being used, just to make sure the sound isn’t somehow unbalanced by leakage. Bravo, Mr. Kolton.
The M100 is one of the few in this roundup that can be folded up and stowed away easily into the included (and very cool) hard-shell case. So it’s definitely more suitable than the rest for use on the go, if that sort of thing is important to you. It is also one of the few that comes in different colors – choose from matte black, glossy black (they call it “shadow”), or a white/silver combo. Each cup has a metal “shield” insert which can be swapped out by the end user, and V-MODA offers custom engraving for a small fee. This may sound a bit pedestrian and indeed it has the potential to be rather tacky…. but when done right it can actually look very cool. It’s hard to get a sense of scale based purely on pictures but in real life the M100 is significantly smaller than the big K551. In fact, it’s small enough to almost cause me some problems.
Remember the pad thing I mentioned? I know some people who were completely happy with the stock pads of the M100. Fit was good, entirely circumaural (around the ears), and they didn’t have any complaints. But after trying my M100 with the optional XL Pads ($20) they immediately wanted to upgrade their pads as well. Why? The XL Pads are simply nicer in every way. The extra space is just enough to increase comfort for someone like me, without being overly massive for smaller users. Despite V-MODA never describing the XL pads as being real leather, they sure seem more convincing than the original pads. And more densely stuffed memory foam is exceedingly comfy. In case you aren’t sure what I’m getting at here – you’re gonna want these pads.
In terms of sound quality, the M100 is again on par with the K551 but again is completely different. These have a definite “fun factor” to them, with significantly more bass heft and impact than the big AKG model. They also have some treble sparkle up top, which I suppose results in the old “smiley face EQ” response. That description has always seemed a bit overly simplistic to my ears, but it gets the point across well enough. The important thing here is that the mids are present enough to be engaging. A lot of bass oriented “fun” headphones have a really sucked out midrange, making them very one-dimensional. They may pound sufficiently for stuff like Mistabishi or Pendulum, but try some Johnny Cash or Ravel or Cat Stevens and watch them fizzle. The M100 is not neutral enough to make it my top choice for classical or jazz, but neither is it bad by any means. It has reasonably high genre bandwidth for what it is, while absolutely dazzling on hip hop, electronic, and most modern pop or rock material. If you are a fan of bass, you won’t be disappointed here. It thumps and rumbles better than most anything in this group with the exception of the Mr. Speakers Mad Dogs – whose planar magnetic drivers are known for doing extremely well with that sort of thing. Still, it’s very satisfyingly competent and I think most bassheads would be thrilled with the performance.
I find the imaging and soundstage performance to be surprisingly good here. Most headphones with “V-shaped” sound signatures don’t really excel in this area, but the M100 is quite good. There’s a sense of width and even some depth, which separates these headphones from most others with similar “fun” aspirations. I know I mentioned these not being ideal for the symphony but guess what else has a huge immersive soundstage? Electro music. Maybe that’s the wrong term but frankly I can’t keep up with all the sub-genres out there. All I know is that I really dig Electronic Noise Controller, Kraftwerk, Emancipator, and Mark Hule (among many others), and the M100 is very agreeable with all of them.
Complaints: the upper midbass has a certain thickness to it which may rile jazz purists, but I don’t think they are the main target audience here. And the top end, while sounding wonderfully sparkly and snappy with Jimmy Eat World or the New Amsterdams, doesn’t capture the full extension of Hiromi’s piano. Nor does it really nail the full shimmer of cymbals. But guess what? It’s not a grating, sibilant mess either, which is very much appreciated. It veers towards the forgiving side which, given the target market, is definitely the right way to go.
Those complaints aside, I really love the compromise V-MODA has made here. The M100 is squarely on the fun side of the spectrum and I’d consider it a “colored” sounding headphone, but not nearly as much as most other “basshead” models. If your musical palette consists of modern rock, pop, and electronic music of most any variety, I’d say the M100 should be high on your list. Purist audiophiles might find it a bit of a blunt instrument but play them some Massive Attack and they’ll likely see the value here. With the XL pads, the M100 is very compelling.
Spider Audio is a newcomer to the headphone world. They had some success with their Real Voice in-ear monitors, and are now branching out into full sized headphones. Their flagship model, the Moonlight, was introduced at CES last year, and actually released early this year priced at $359. Apparently customer feedback was mixed because Spider decided to tweak the design and release an updated version, which is what I’m covering here. They gave it a more manageable cable, different pads made from softer materials, and tuned it for a more balanced presentation — apparently the original was often called bass-shy. Best of all they dropped the price from $359 to $249, making it significantly more in line with other models in this roundup.
I have no experience with the first version but everything Spider says they changed seems to work well here. The cable is nothing fancy, reminding me of the stock cable of a Sennheiser HD650 – not a bad headphone to emulate. The pads are soft and — for my head at least — very comfortable. And the sound is indeed reasonably well-balanced. I certainly wouldn’t want these to have any less presence in the lower regions, so I draw the conclusion that this refresh was entirely a good thing.
Look at the pictures of the Moonlight. It is, shall we say … different from the others here. The key distinction? Size. It’s freakin’ massive. This thing dwarfs the next largest models by a considerable margin. Size is not far off from the Audeze LCD series which is known for being huge, but in this case the cups stick out more making it seem that much larger. I was concerned about the comfort due to such a huge design but the light weight really helps. The pads are among the best of this bunch, and there’s enough room inside to where my ears are completely enveloped. So the comfort thing is very well done here. Folks with small heads may disagree though, and decide the Moonlight is just too big.
Because of the large size and light weight, my brain tries to reconcile and automatically concludes that they must be poorly built. Which is not entirely true. For the most part, materials used are quite nice. The cups look to be made from brushed aluminum with an oval inset made from smooth, almost glassy plastic. The frame is entirely aluminum as well, with some type of rubber support on the top for stability. It certainly looks like a high-end headphone from a few feet away, probably more so than anything else in this article. Upon closer inspection, there are a few things that remind us of the reasonable price. My main gripe is the mechanism used for adjusting the headband size. It’s basically metal sliding on model, with little notches to help find a steady position. Which is fine, but the connection has a lot more play in it than I’d like. And I’m not sure how it would hold up to repeated adjustment over the course of several years. I’ll admit that I had no issue finding a comfortable spot and locking it in, so maybe I’m being a bit too picky here. But I’d prefer to have a more typical slider design even if it looked more pedestrian. The “fork” on each side connecting the headband to the cup looks awfully similar to the design used by Beyerdynamic. It doesn’t quite have the same premium feel though — it’s decent, but just isn’t as robust, and the metal used doesn’t seem to be of the same high quality. So overall the Moonlight is an interesting design with some strong points but also a few questionable areas.
The sound of the Moonlight is fairly enjoyable. It’s got a nice balance to it, a little on the light-weight side but not majorly cold or thin, with good articulation of details. In fact I’d say this is one of the more detailed and accurate sounds of the bunch. Imaging is accurate and soundstage is very open, rivaling or even exceeding the AKG K551. For a closed headphone, soundstage performance doesn’t get a whole lot better than this, and to do so will definitely cost you — but we’ll discuss that in my next article covering the high-end models.
In a lot of ways the Moonlight reminds me of a quality mini-monitor. I’m not one of those fanatics who insists monitor speakers always image better than their larger, multi-way counterparts … sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. However I am willing to concede that it’s easier to achieve realistic imaging on a pair of $1,000 monitors (for example) than on a $1,000 pair of 3-way floor standers. That’s just the way it usually plays out. There’s almost always a trade-off in low-frequency extension and general dynamics. I’d say that same thing applies here. Most times, the Moonlight doesn’t necessarily come off as “bass light”, yet it doesn’t have the same authority as something like the K551 or especially the Mad Dogs. Then again, sometimes it does seem a light down there. It works very well with jazz, classical, and singer/songwriter type stuff. In those cases the articulate, ethereal signature doesn’t feel like anything is missing in the least. It’s not quite as convincing with thundering electronica or thrash metal. Not that bass is absent altogether, but it’s not the focus. There’s more punch to it than deep rumble. Sounds like I’m describing a good monitor speaker, doesn’t it? That’s pretty much how it comes out. Midrange transparency is a definite strong point — if you dig vocal-heavy groups like The Pursuassions and Mouth Music, or bluegrass fare such as Crooked Still and Bearfoot, the Moonlight won’t disappoint.
Because of the somewhat whispy tonal balance, I found myself adjusting volume with these more often than with the other headphones. Sometimes I’d want to tease a little more impact out of a kick drum, only to find the snare drum and cymbals becoming too aggressive at the higher volume. But if I turn it down too low, the music becomes uninvolving. Apparently these walk the line between clear and sharp, so you’ll also want to be careful with system matching. This does happen to be a headphone that benefits from having some solid amplification behind it. Mind you, it doesn’t need a ton of juice, but an iPod by itself won’t do the trick. This is true of most headphones, but you’d be surprised how good some can sound from a decent phone or tablet. The Moonlight, however, is not one of them.
So, do I like the Spider Moonlight? Do I recommend it? Well, here’s the thing … I’d say this headphone is aimed at those who primarily listen to better quality recordings. When I did a lot of DSD tracks, and hi-res PCM, and plain old Redbook from Reference Recordings, the JVC XRCD series, that sort of thing … the Moonlight treated me well. When I tried some Meshuggah or Iced Earth, Rakim or EPMD … I didn’t love the results. So you have to look at these in light of your listening habits and musical preferences. If things line up, the Moonlight can be very rewarding.
The oddly named Mad Dogs are somewhat unique among this group. For starters, they use planar magnetic drivers, where everything else here uses a more traditional dynamic driver. Aside from that, the Mad Dogs have the distinction of being a modified headphone rather than a completely original design. Allow me to explain further because the story is pretty interesting.
There’s a small but dedicated group of folks who love the old “Orthodynamic” headphone designs from Yamaha and other planar magnetic designs from years past. This group has been active on HeadFi for over 8 years now, and during that time many things have progressed. Initially there were efforts to refurbish older models – gear made decades ago tends to need a little TLC. From there, people started figuring out they could actually make improvements to some of these things. The sound signature was very dependent on damping, sometimes more so than the drivers themselves. By improving the damping, using the right materials in the right way, some of these planar magnetic models could be made to sound far better than they ever did in the first place. Drivers were sometimes even swapped into different “shells”, so you might have a Sony or Sennheiser frame with vintage Yamaha Orthodynamic drivers stuffed inside. A lot of things were learned and a good time was had by all.
Fast forward a few years to some big news – two new companies, HiFiMAN and Audeze, both came to market with brand new, high-end headphone designs based around planar magnetic drivers. These designs ended up becoming highly praised, and both companies went on to release several other models. Planar magnetic designs were here to stay, a viable “mainstream” technology to challenge dynamic and even entry-level electrostatic alternatives.
Somewhere in there, people started noticing a little headphone called the Fostex T50RP. Fostex had been quietly making it since 2002 but honestly I don’t recall them getting any real attention until this thread at HeadFi from 2009. The hardcore planar enthusiasts had probably been aware of them but most regular folks had no clue. These things had an MSRP of $199 yet routinely sold online for under a hundred bucks, making them a fine value on their own. And it gets better – with some modification these things could go from “good for the money” to “just plain amazing, regardless of price”. A HeadFier named Smeggy actually started a business selling his modified T50RP which he called the Thunderpants TP1. That model remains one of my favorite closed headphones at any price. Smeggy had some personal issues and appears to have fallen off the map, leaving some unfilled orders in his wake. But a few others have stepped up offering their own take on the T50RP, with the Mad Dogs being the most well known at this point.
Mad Dogs are the creation of Dan Clark, aka Mr. Speakers. Dan is an electrical engineer who has lots of experience in the industry and at one point was employed designing high-end speakers — hence the name “Mr Speakers”. Dan turned his attention to headphones seeking to create an affordable but great sounding option for folks on a budget, and the Mad Dogs were born.
Unlike the Thunderpants, Mad Dogs keep the stock frame of the T50RP intact, aside from the added “comfort strap” headband and custom-made “Alpha Pad” earpads. Most of the modification takes place internally, where Dan uses his own proprietary blend of damping to tune the sound to his liking. Dan says the Mad Dogs are the result of “hundreds of experiments, measurements, and listening tests that have dramatically transformed the sound of this sturdy studio headphone”. I don’t doubt that in the least, as the Mad Dogs sound quite a bit better than the stock Fostex model.
The Mad Dogs have what I commonly refer to as a Musical sound (yes, with a capital M). It’s rich, bold, and smooth – definitely an opposing viewpoint compared to the more effervescent Spider Moonlight. I was immediately drawn to this sound for its tonal thickness and lack of fatigue. This is a headphone I could listen to for long periods of time without being shredded by treble zing. I even broke out some albums which I love but normally can’t tolerate on other headphones, such as the Mercury Living Presence series from the 1950s. Their slogan was “You Are There” and I do respect what they were doing in terms of the technology available at the time…. and of course the music is fantastic. But I find it just too damn bright on modern playback equipment. Out of this entire roundup, the Mad Dogs are one of only two options I care to use for this stuff. I’m not talking about a dull top end, just a bit of smoothness which helps take the edge off. Add in the prodigious bass response which is somewhere north of neutral and you’ve got a headphone that tends to make everything sound pretty good. Maybe better than it should? Purists might do better with the more accurate presentation of the AKG or the Spirit Pro, while those just looking to enjoy their music should love the Mad Dogs.
Bass is a definite strong point here. As in, probably the best of this whole collection, assuming you like your bass large and in charge compared to a neutral reference. It does take a back seat to the V-MODA M100 in terms of quantity though, so true bassheads will still gravitate in that direction. There’s something about the planar magnetic sound which just seems “different” to my ears, like more air being moved, and I think the Mad Dogs really benefit from that.
Ever hear the Audeze LCD-2? Or just hear of it? The thousand dollar planar magnetic design, commonly considered one of the best headphones available? Well, the Mad Dogs do a pretty good impression of the LCD-2, especially considering the price discrepancy. Sure, the Audeze has some distinct advantages in key areas, and I’m not saying the Mad Dogs compete directly. Yet I can’t deny the similarity in terms of tonality and character. Both are somewhat on the rich and creamy side, making them great for melting away the day with hours of musical enjoyment. If one aspired to own the LCD-2 but couldn’t afford the cost or the sound leakage, the Mad Dogs would be a safe bet. They capture the general flavor, in a sealed design, for a whole lot less.
A few noteworthy things I can’t forget to mention. First, the Mad Dogs are not quite as sealed as most others. The description of the original Fostex model calls it a “semi-open” design, which makes sense once you spot the small vents on each cup. A key part of the modification is to add damping materials and it seems this decreases sound leakage to the point where it passes as a legit sealed headphone. Listening at high volumes, a neighbor might hear a bit of sound by coming within a foot or two of your head. But someone across the room or in the next cubicle won’t notice a thing, especially at normal volumes.
The second thing to mention is the fact that Mad Dogs have been continually evolving. The current revision is 3.2 and there have been quite a few prior to this – I don’t even know if 3.2 is an official number or just something us forum geeks have concocted to help track the changes. The main point of this? Buying a used Mad Dog can be a bit of a gamble. The sound has changed and improved over time but there aren’t really any external markings to indicate which version is which (though at one point there were more stickers on the sides – but I don’t know when those went away). The Alpha Pads are a fairly new development, so that’s a good indicator, but then again any older Mad Dog variant can swap pads as well. This probably explains why reviews over the past year or two show some very differing opinions as to the general sound signature – the different versions and the variability of pads make for different results.
Lastly, the Mad Dogs – like most planar magnetic designs – love power. Lots of it. This is the only headphone in my roundup which I felt could use more juice than the Resonessence Concero HP could deliver. The HP did a fine job but I got even better results using a powerful dedicated amp such as my Violectric V200 or AURALiC Taurus. Mad Dog owners don’t absolutely need a powerful amp, but it’s nice to know your headphones will continue to scale up as you expand your rig later on down the road.
Alpha Design Labs. Sounds cool right? I can’t believe the name wasn’t gobbled up ages ago by some high-end audio firm. But apparently it wasn’t, because ADL is a fairly new venture, a spin-off division from the more recognizable Furutech brand. Furutech is known for their cable related products, and ADL makes a few cables too, but mainly focuses on electronics. They have a few different items for home and portable use and a common feature among them is headphone amplification. At some point ADL must have gotten tired of using their gear to drive headphones from other brands, and decided to give it a go themselves. I have seen companies who make both headphones and headphone amps, but it usually goes the other direction – established headphone firm adds an amp to their portfolio. See Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, and Grado as examples. This is the first time I can think of where a company started with amplification and later decided to produce their very own headphone.
The H118 is unique among this group, or any collection of headphones for that matter, in that it uses a very unconventional shape for the pads. It starts out as a fairly typical and nondescript headphone design – the black plastic is nice if not particularly luxurious, the adjustment mechanism is the classic “slider” variety, and it even folds up in a way similar to the V-MODA M100 (and numerous other headphones). The weirdness comes when we examine the earpads, which have a triangular shape to them. I’ve never seen another headphone quite like it. If you asked me, based on pictures alone, if I thought this design would work for my head … I’d be pretty doubtful. Yet somehow it manages to work and is actually fairly comfy. It does partially sit on my ears in some places, and I probably wouldn’t like it for hours at a time. For normal listening (defined as 1 album worth of music, give or take) it gets the job done surprisingly well. The light weight of the H118 definitely helps. Initially there was a bit too much clamping force but after some use it loosened up by just the right amount. Would I still prefer a more typical round or oval shape instead of the triangle? Maybe, maybe not. I have to wonder how much influence the shape has on the resulting sound. ADL calls it a “Triform Contour” design and says it helps reduce standing waves and distortion. Who knows.
In any case, one thing I dislike about the H118 is the cable. ADL being a division of Furutech, and Furutech being a cable specialist, you’d think there would be a fancy cable involved here. That would somewhat help the H118 to stand apart from the norm in this class. What actually happens is we get a 10 foot long, rather stiff cable that doesn’t particularly strike me as being anything special. I suppose if we measure “quality” by a cable being stiff and difficult to deal with, this cable is indeed premium. Personally I’m not a fan. At least it uses a mini-XLR connection to attach to the headphones, meaning it can easily be replaced. Still, this seems like a missed opportunity.
As far as the sound goes, the H118 was not one that initially jumped out at me as being something altogether noteworthy. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but seemed a bit dark, a tad slow, and not particularly open or expansive. I came back a few times and still they never really “clicked” until I spent time listening to them on back to back days with no other listening in between. Once I wrapped my brain around the sound and stopped comparing it directly to others, I started liking it more and more.
The H118 strikes me as something of a cross between the Mad Dogs and the M100. It’s fairly Mad Dog-esque (is that a word?) in the upper regions, with a smooth presentation that makes it great for taming sharp/annoying recordings (early CD releases anyone?). Down low, it sounds more like the V-MODA M100, though maybe not quite as pounding. For true bass-head appeal I’d choose the M100 as it extends lower and hits harder, but there are times where those accentuated highs are just too much. If I want more thump than the Mad Dogs, but less top end sparkle than the M100, I reach for the H118.
On a technical level, the ADL is about par for this group. It’s not the most open sounding, nor does it extend truly deep into subterranean depths. Midrange realism is good enough though doesn’t match the Focal or the AKG. Now that I think about it, there’s really no single thing that ADL does better than the rest. Yet somehow it just “works” for me; the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Think LS3/5a, in spirit more than actual sound signature. I particularly like them with classic rock – Hawkwind, Status Quo, Hendrix, The Zombies … often times these recordings are a little thin and bright, so the particular tuning of the H118 is ideal to liven them up and take the edge off, without completely overdoing it.
I don’t know for sure if Alpha Design Labs intends to expand their headphone lineup. As an initial first offering, the H118 is pretty damn good. It won’t be for everyone, and it isn’t really a technical tour de force, but in terms of making sweet music I’d say it succeeds rather well. I’m interested to see what else ADL can come up with in the next year or two. If they keep a similar sound signature while moving up the ladder a bit in technical competency, they’ll be in a good spot. As it stands the H118 remains an intriguing option, worth looking into if the character seems like a good fit for you.
Focal is a huge name in high-end audio. They’ve been making speakers for decades and I think it really shows the popularity of the emerging “personal audio” category to see major players like Focal get involved. Their first foray into headphones was the Spirit One, a semi-portable headphone with cups that sat on the ears. That model remains in the lineup but Focal recently added two new siblings – the Spirit Classic and the Spirit Pro. I decided to try the Spirit Pro because it was more readily available – when I started this article, the Pro was recently released and the Classic ($399) was barely just announced. On the outside it appears the Classic is more luxurious, intended for the home user, where the Pro is more rugged for use in a studio environment. I won’t speculate on the sonic variation (if indeed one even exists) but rather will focus completely on the Pro since that’s what I have handy.
Externally, the Spirit Pro very much fits the stated purpose of “Professional use”. The shell is mainly composed of an interesting textured plastic, accented by some aluminum parts in key areas. This is one of the few headphones out there using a coiled cable, which actually works pretty well in a home environment (Focal also includes a shorter straight cable with inline mic). Maybe it’s the nature of the beast when it comes to this type of design, but there’s definitely something familiar about the general looks of this headphone. Perhaps there’s only so much one can do when designing a sealed model at a certain price point. Not that they aren’t attractive in their own way … perhaps traditionalism has its place. These will definitely be less polarizing than, say, the Spider Moonlight.
I’m of two minds about the build quality here – on one hand, it feels a bit “creaky”. There’s a bit of play in areas where it seems like there shouldn’t be any. Then again the textured black plastic seems like it would stand up well against scrapes and scuffs likely to be encountered in an abusive studio environment. The (simulated?) leather pads on these seems above average for this class — crappy, cheap pleather is a dealbreaker for me, so all of the models in this article have pretty nice pads. True, most are some type of faux-leather, but the standard here is fairly high. The cable uses a nice rubber which feels a step above most others here – little touches like that make the experience feel more premium, so I’m more willing to overlook my other complaints.
On the downside, the Spirit Pro has one of the smallest cups here. It does touch parts of my ears rather than surrounding them completely. It remains comfortable enough, probably thanks to the quality padding combined with that nice material they use. I still wouldn’t call it one of the more comfortable models for long-term listening though. In fact, for the potentially problematic fit, I almost left the Spirit Pro out of this article all together … what stopped me? Simple … the sound quality.
Yes, the Spirit Pro has a very satisfying sound to it. In keeping with its Focal roots I’d call this a neutral, monitor-like sound, with very good extension on both ends. I sense perhaps a hint of midrange dominance – nothing major, just a touch of extra energy to bring the presence region forward. And the quality is among the very best here – transparent, clear, highly resolving. This results in a very “truthful” presentation which points out the good, bad, and ugly inherent in a recording. The words “revealing” and “dry” come to mind, which I mean in the best possible sense … though for some tastes, those come across as a negative thing. Bass reproduction comes off as tight and very fast, with loads of accuracy and good extension too. It might seem just a touch too light in weight for some tastes though. Compared to the AKG, the lows here seem a bit more accurate but also less impactful, so in the end I’m not sure which one I’d rank higher. I will say the Focals do bass in a way that fits their overall presentation. I sometimes wish for more, but if I’m honest I know that would upset the delicate balance they’ve achieved. So in reality I wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Spirit Pro, like the Moonlight, does best with great recordings. I love how it handles the subtle nuances in Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, or the interplay between congueros on The Conga Kings (both 24-bit/96kHz hi-res releases). The Focals are capable of digging deep into the recording, and throwing a very realistic presentation if the music allows. Unlike the Moonlight, the Spirit Pro does not sound quite so bad with poor recordings. Sure, it will show flaws, and in comparison those tracks won’t be as engaging. But there’s enough warmth and enough midrange linearity here that things don’t get downright nasty. This is another one of those headphones which will reward superior equipment in the playback chain.
Sounds like the Spirit Pro is a great all around performer, right? It is, for the most part. Some people will find them too clinical, and there’s always someone who wants more bass. But generally speaking the Focals are have some of the broadest appeal of all the headphones in this collection. The limiting factor in this case will be the fit – I really wish Focal would have made the cups larger. I can handle the somewhat uninspired design and the vaguely disheartening build quality (maybe it’s just my review sample) … but what I can’t handle is wearing these for long periods of time. I suspect I won’t be alone in this. The cups are up in size compared to the Spirit One, which was Focal’s first entry into the headphone realm, so they’re headed in the right direction … but they could have easily increased size by a good amount more without causing problems like the massive AKG models. When all is said and done though, I’m willing to overlook all my complaints because the sound is so good. I realize there’s probably a huge number of people out there with smaller ears who won’t have a single complaint about size. Whatever the case – one of these days, Focal is going to work their way up to a high-end, flagship headphone. When that happens, watch out …. It’s gonna be good.
Phew! That was a lot more work than I expected it to be! This article started out with the humble goal of finding several good recommendations for sealed headphones. I never expected to find so many worth talking about — frankly, I’m probably more surprised than you are. I did start with a rather large pool and had quite a few which I sent back, their sound not being up to the task. But the number of worthy options is larger than I had anticipated. This of course is no bad thing – more options equals more chance of the consumer finding something they love.
At this price range, it appears one can get a very good sealed headphone, if not quite a great one. Each of these models has some strengths and some weaknesses, and none of them is perfect, though some will come closer than others depending on your particular taste (and head shape). I sometimes found myself wishing I could combine the strengths of several models to concoct the ideal headphone — the comfort of the AKG combined with the accuracy of the Focal, the technical competence of the Spider Moonlight paired with the fun factor of the Mad Dogs … there’s any number of pairings I could come up with. Ultimately I think one must move higher up the food chain to cover all the bases … which is something I’ll discuss in the next article. For what they cost though, this group does mighty well.
In any case, the fun thing here is the feasibility of owning several of these at once. I can totally see owning the V-Moda M100 for my electronica and hip-hop fix, supported by the Alpha Design Labs H118 for classic rock (just one example of many). It wouldn’t take up too much space and it wouldn’t cost a fortune. And best of all, I could use them anytime I wanted without bothering anyone else. Try that with a pair of speakers!