by Brian Hunter
Fostex has a long history in the audio business. The company was founded in 1973, but its parent company Foster Electric Co., Ltd was formed way back in 1949. The company was originally a mass producer of OEM speaker and transducer products, but broke into pro and hi-fi facing mini monitors in 1978 with the Fostex 6301B and then into the growing category of home recording with a line of multitrack recording devices in ‘81. This was actually my first interaction with the brand (which I’m sure some other audiophiles will attest), sitting at home with a dark grey plastic track recorder that used all 4 tracks on a single side of an old cassette tape. The quality of any recording “tracked down” was horrendous, but they did bring us a small piece of the studio in the home. Musicians of today know nothing of the labor involved in the old way of doing things. Everything had to be operated in a strikingly binary way, with no open display or navigation to speak of. With a free copy of Garageband on every iPhone better recordings can be done very easily from any location and a computer drummer fills in automatically, but I digress.
Foster contributed to the personal audio space in part with a popular Denon series of headphones a few years back. While the newest generation of these headphones took a heavy hand into the mainstream Beats/lifestyle realm, those original AH-DX000 series gained quite a following with high fidelity enthusiasts. Today, the Fostex brand has partnered with the group buying site Massdrop for a new headphone that pays homage to D5000 called the Massdrop TH-X00. After a solid reception, the two parties decided to extend the line even further with additional wood variants for the earcups including Purpleheart (also known as peltogyne) and Ebony. For the sake of this 3-way comparison we will be taking a look at the original TH-X00 ($399 on Massdrop), the TH-X00 Ebony ($499 on Massdrop) and the Fostex-issued TH-610 ($599).
In simple terms, I was always blown away by the woodwork done with the Fostex TH-900 flagship. Now in mk2, the red high gloss look stands out in the crowded space of headphone aesthetics. And while the TH-X00 doesn’t share the same ruby-red colorings, it was intended and a successor to the fairly sexy woodwork done on the AH-D5000. The mahogany cups on the original X00 also offer a very nice gloss effect tied to a very appealing grain look, albeit more of leatherbound-book-meets-bowling-alley shade. The Ebony takes the idea even a step further. Treading the line between wood grain and almost full blackout depending on the angle, it’s a very seductive look that falls behind the high gloss finish. The walnut cup of the TH-610 features a slightly more professional look with its matte surface that looks a little like the Mahogany X00 without the reddish tint. Of course, these sort of things are heavily levied by personal preference, but given all other things being equal, I would probably choose the Ebony for its mystique and usual wood grain presentation. Each headphone uses a suspension and gimbal system that is very similar to the Denon AH-D5000. This heritage maintained all the way up to the flagship TH-900. What is different is the earpads. All three of our subjects share the same type of tighter design that cuts down on the space left to right next to the listeners ear. On head, however, this did not prove to be a problem. In fact all three headphones proved to be massively comfortable, fairly light (375g) and offered just the right amount of caliper pressure. Of the three units we received, the two Massdrop headphones felt equal, with the 610 offer just a smidge more clamping pressure, but still fell within the parameters of “very lovely to wear for long periods of time”. Overall the headphone feels and looks fairly solid in the hand, although it tends to flop around a bit from the pivot point near the earcup. The cable for the X00s, like the Denon, is not detachable. The included cable is fairly long showing intent for home listening, but portable users may run into a little bit of trouble hiding all that wire. The 610s are detachable, so aftermarket fans will have an easy option for upgrades or length changes. The included 2-pin rhodium coated cable is the same length as the X00s at 10 feet. The pads are constructed of “eggshell protein” and a leatherette material. They feel extremely relaxed against this reviewer’s large-ish head and along with the headband, sum up to three of the most overall comfortable headphones that have come through the lab in quite some time. Some more details from Fostex on the 610:
Apart from the obvious aesthetic differences and the detachable cable, a few things under the hood set the TH-610 apart from both Massdrop models. Specifically, the ear pads and cable all feature upgraded, higher-end materials borrowed from the flagship TH-900. While the difference is subtle, the leatherette upholstery on the ear pads is smoother, finer, and more durable. The earpad “stuffing” (for lack of a better word) features a newer, “low-repulsion” material designed to improve acoustic isolation and provide a better seal. Inside the cable, the TH-610 features 6N grade OFC (Oxygen-Free Copper), whereas the specs for the cables on the Massdrop variants aren’t specified.
All three headphones utilize a 50mm neodymium magnet bio-dynamic diaphragm which Fostex claims holds more than 1 tesla of magnetic flux density, but still manage to sound fairly different from each other. It’s not quite as night and day as switching headphone brands or going from open to closed back, but acoustically diverse enough to pick up on without much effort or training at all.
The first thing you notice when you put on any of these three headphones is the previously mentioned comfort, but right after the music starts a listener may also notice a surprise sense of spaciousness derived from the sealed design. This is ubiquitous across all three headphones, but it is commonly accepted that (going back to even the Denon days) these headphones are more of a semi-sealed design which doesn’t block out massive amounts of exterior noise. While it’s rare to pin down hard numbers into experiential evaluation such as this, I think in this rare case it’s appropriate to say that the perceived “directness” of the bass delivery (that is often found in tight seal over-ear and IEM earphones) is reduced by about half. And half is a major improvement in this case. It’s not quite the same breathable low-end of an open back headphone, but it maintains a better sense of self-preservation to real world bass recreation than most. All three headphones also follow a subtle boost in both the lows and highs, with the mids falling back a little further when compared our reference headphones like the Audeze LCD-4. How deep is the V? In truth, probably not far at all, but the bass is quite large and provides ample thump for dance and electronica, if that happens to be your bag. The extra bass appears to contribute a large portion of that perception to the mids, perhaps moreso than the treble does. But more on that later, just know that all three carry quite a wallop in the lower frequencies regardless of their slight differences from each other.
While its clear to see the connective tissue between the TH-X00 Mahogany and Ebony, several distinct differences do exist. Overall the Mahogany feels slightly more balanced across the board in terms of frequency response. This may be in part due to the bass difference between Mahogany vs. Ebony. Both are bigger than neutral, but offer plenty of punch. It’s not the tightest bass to grace a headphone, but it gets the job done and its pretty fun to listen to. Again, it’s a force to be reckoned with but still slides into your ear with a 50% more spacious, airy delivery. The bass appears to be elevated even more in the Ebony, but emphasized at a lower frequency. This difference could easily play with individual perception of quantity (and perhaps quality) but it felt bigger in the Ebony overall between the two review samples we received. Once you move past the bass, the mids on the Ebony feel slightly more within reach, and in turn more nuanced and natural. It’s an interesting listen in a vacuum. Enjoying the two headphones over time, one gets accustomed to the response. It is very easy to see how many enthusiasts could swiftly get behind the fun bass, comfort and non-fatiguing presentation of either headphone. According to the Massdrop website, the reception of the headphone isn’t far off. For the Mahogany alone the group buying site has sold a total of 5,025 pairs by the time this piece will be published. That’s just over $2M in sales for the first headphone alone. Partner that momentum with two variants that draft on the positive equity of the launch, and you have a fine recipe for success. In theory, if you could keep the responses just close enough so there is no clear favorite, forums could squabble over the nuances enough to incite individuals with a fever for upgrades to purchase even more than one pair – seeing as the initial drop was only presented as a single headphone (Mahogany).
In the treble, the Ebony rounds out the high-end a little smoother, but with an extra dose of subtle energy adding to the entertainment factor even more. By comparison the Mahogany feels a little more neutral on both ends. The mids to treble ride tips the scale a little more towards organic, but the original flavor of X00 isn’t far off. It is totally possible that blind taste tests would result in a pick for either headphone, as they tend to be much more alike than different from each other. Is the Ebony worth the extra scratch? In terms of entertainment there might be a bit more there, but one needs to keep in mind, bass drums hits will thump.
The most neutral sounding headphone of the bunch is actually the TH-610. The bass is more manageable than both the Ebony and Mahogany, and rides the frequency slope fairly well from bass to mids. It’s a fairly pleasant-sounding headphone overall, but little to complain about and a more studio/pro response than the Massdrop fare. The bass is a bit more restrained and vocals feel more in line with cymbal and guitar. The exterior shell of the headphone is almost symbolic of that which lies within. The matte finish is safer, less prone to scratching, fingerprints and the like. It is also a preference for some people. The gloss of the X00’s is a little more razzy, a little more woah, a little more riding without your seatbelt on. The sound isn’t quite as polite either. Where the TH-610 runs into a bit of controversy is the highs. It feels even a bit more exciting than either Massdrop piece, but there is a small batch of bumpiness on the rise up from the mids that give them a very slight sense of edginess when listening. Maybe not something that everyone would notice right away, but it is in contrast to the presentation from the Ebony.
The trio we have here is quite a delightful dish of personal audio entrees. Each is flavored just enough to make them different, but clearly served from the same restaurant. It appears that careful planning was taken to make the Massdrop TH-X00 and TH-X00 Ebony fun-sounding headphones, which usually drives a solid reception when the flat, open, detail-oriented $1k+ expectations can’t be met due to design choices or cost restrictions. It’s some of the same allure that we have seen with both the Sennheiser Momentum original release (and more recently the Meze 99 Classics) at a slightly lower price point. This is a good progression for the Foster OEM transducer. The three-flavor option of the same headphone offers up a wide berth of options for enthusiasts, especially on such an even playing field. If you don’t mind a little extra low-end pushing in the ear cushions, either Massdrop headphone would make fine choice for $500-ish semi-closed headphone. Some might prefer the TH-610 for its slightly more pro approach to sonics, but all three make a lovely meal for a hungry audiophile.