Words and Photos by Eric Franklin Shook
Nothing holds you hostage with the music like a big set of cans. You are isolated, alone, just you and the music. The music gets inside your head in more ways than one. A lifelike sound-stage isn’t usually something I usually associated with headphones, that is until I got myself into a fancy set of Audeze LCD-X headphones. Planar drivers can hold and shape the sound-stage in unprecedented ways. When I first had a run in with Acoustic Research (website) at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I laid eyes and ears on the AR-H1 — and like many of the more expensive Audeze, Abyss, or even HiFiMAN headphones I had heard, the AR-H1 was right in pace, except in price. For the same price as a trite pair of Beats, you could have a serious headphone — a must get in for review.
Quirks and Features
The initial un-boxing of headphones in the past ten years has become an event of its own. It’s a shame you can only experience it once, before the re-packing and unpacking again process becomes a little labor-some. Once you know what lay before you, the honeymoon phase of unwrapping has begun to fade. The Acoustic Research AR-H1 falls in line with its competition for the un-boxing moment. Where it excels from there on, is its well designed packaging. Many a headphone collector might have a dedicated stand for their headphones, but if you were the not so serious type or display space was at a minimum, the faux textured satin black finished box, though be it card board, would make a still handsome and functional home for your headphones. One could even be tempted to use it as a display.
Contents are simple: the Acoustic Research AR-H1 headphones, a soft pouch carrying case (an AR logo emblazoned faux suede with drawstring closer), a 1/8th to 1/4th threaded and gold plated adapter, and a 5ft dual lead cable that is combined into a robust and flexible rubber for the first 45 inches, before diving into separate leads for both right and left ear cups. Affixing of cable to ear-cup is done by 2.5mm mono tension plugs. Which is nice for those moments when life’s little snags happen and you’d rather sacrifice a cord being undone, than an entire set of cans being embarrassingly ripped from your scalp. One gripe about assembly of the cords and headphones is that the right and left cable leads are so minimal in markings that denoting which lead is right or left is almost impossible with the naked eye. So much so that I had to use my cameras macro mode to find it.
Right out of the gate, I am aware that a large open backed planar headphone isn’t the most appropriate thing to bring with you in public for the sake of sounds leaking in and out. But the 5ft cord and it’s smaller 1/8th jack-plug tempt one to take these boys on the road, and that’s exactly what I did.
AR-H1 On The Road
These headphones have been on the road more with me more than any other component to date. Is this because it’s a pair of headphones and not an integrated amplifier or pair of speakers? Yes.
When in the hands of friends and strangers, theAcoustic Research AR-H1 headphones astounded and overwhelmed. Whether using high-res streaming services like Qobuz or handheld players like my iPod Classic, or each listeners cell phone source — the AR-H1’s did not disappoint as they are easy to drive.
Most listeners immediately commented on the high level of detail exhibited by the Acoustic Research AR-H1’s, which surprised me at first. Surprised because I found the AR-H1’s bass to be exceedingly rich and full. But then again, I’m an audiophile who is accustomed to high levels detail. These “on the road” folk are pure salt of the earth people who have over the years been denied the insight that high levels of detail in musical playback systems can provide.
Thirsting for detail, many of the listeners gushed profusely with accolade and blessings on the AR-H1’s ability to deliver razor sharp detail of cymbals, strings, and drums. But as I probed for more personal particulars, the subject did arrive at bass. Not the amount of it, as the world we live in now seems to overuse bass levels as a means to indicate quality, but the speed of it.
For many of the listeners I played tracks of acoustic upright bass, along with those from the EDM (electronic dance music) genre. For most listeners, the natural instrumentation sounded exactly that — natural. Depending though if they had some frame of reference. When played with electronic music, many noted the power and lack of sloppiness that the Acoustic Research AR-H1’s delivered. Some even encountering the lowest frequencies in music for the first time. It’s great when people can experience new depth in the music both emotionally and sonically.
The Sound of Music
Sweet Jane by Cowboy Junkies off their album The Trinity Session: I think this might be the first time I’ve really heard this song for what it is. All its detail is brought forth with shimmer and glitter. Removed is the fog of quiet often plaguing this song. It sounds dynamic for the first time.
Birthday by Junior Boys of their album Last Exit: Bass is fat, quick, and powerful. Mid-bass here is the hero. Synths are milky and rich with tone. This is no longer just an approximation of the music. I am very sentimental about this song and here with the Acoustic Research AR-H1’s I’m taken back to how I felt when this song was strongest with me. I’m now sad, but reaching for the replay button. The AR-H1’s are telling me that I should prepare for a fight with every song, albeit emotionally.
Lucky Star by Madonna off her self titled album Madonna: This is what these headphones were made for. My feeling that these headphones are aimed at modern music are confirmed. Yes, I know Madonna’s album was released in 1983, but the Acoustic Research AR-H1’s really shine in how they handle synth textures, and ‘80s drum compression. Everything from modern genres proved to be consistently more listenable.
Lean On by Major Lazer + DJ Snake: This is where things went wild and for the better. Vocals come in with snap and glow, and then the rhythm comes in. Bass is tight and measured, and deeper than I’ve heard elsewhere. The last time something dropped this hard, Japan surrendered.
Acoustic Research AR-H1: Conclusion
Overall, the Acoustic Research AR-H1 is a prime example of planar technology and efficiency. At some point the voicing of these headphones is noticeably not flat. Being so, it lends itself more towards music record in the last 40 years more than anything prior. Where the AR-H1 shines best however is with modern pop, EDM, and alternative rock recordings from the last 20 years. The AR-H1’s voicing delivers an almost night club experience with genres like rap, hip-hop, house, techno, etc. Also of note, is how the AR-H1 is the only open back headphone I would recommend for travel as it’s voicing proclivity lends itself to podcasts and highlighted detail where information more than balance is priority. For home listening, there are better sounding headphones than the AR-H1, but none that I can think of are as comfortable, efficient, and detailed for the money. The AR-H1 in my mind is ideal for those who want a flexible audiophile headphone that offers stunning amounts of detail across a wide compatibility of sources and amplified devices. If toting around portable headphone amplifiers, dacs and extra cables isn’t your thing, the AR-H1 should be on your short list.
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