A Meeting with Phiaton

I'd been curious about Phiaton's headphones ever since Wes Phillips's positive review of the radical-looking, leather-clad Moderna MS 400 appeared in our pages earlier this year, so when I learned that a couple of Phiaton's executives would be in New York City to introduce their new noise-cancelling 'phones, I was eager to check them out.

It's a gray and windy day in Manhattan, and the sky is threatening to fall. I get off the train at Herald Square and decide to walk the twenty or so blocks to the HWH PR offices where our 10am meeting is scheduled. I've got the time and I could use the exercise. I stop at a deli for a large coffee (regular, milk and sugar) and a buttered roll. Two seventy-five. I give the girl three singles and she hands me my change. There are still some bargains in this old city. I glance at the tip box, but drop the quarter in my pocket. We're in a recession, after all.

I drink my coffee and walk and think about the times I've had on these streets, memories scattered everywhere I turn. In my mind, I hear Chan Marshall sing. She sings:

Me and my baby
We had a big fight
We ended our romance
The same night

I arrive at the HWH office and take the elevator to the 12th floor. I'm soon greeted by Michael Ingalls, HWH's senior account supervisor. He, in turn, introduces me to Kay Jung and Hyo Lee. That's them, there in the photo. Kay is Phiaton's senior research engineer, and Hyo is Phiaton's marketing manager. It's a pleasure to meet them.

Hyo explains that Phiaton's parent is Cresyn, a large South Korean electronics company that started out as Daehan Phonograph Needle Factory, founded in 1959. In the 1980s, Cresyn started providing OEM headphones and headset components to major electronics corporations such as Sony. Soon, Cresyn would offer their own headphones throughout Asia and Europe, and, at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, Phiaton was introduced to tackle the high-end market in the US and worldwide. Cresyn has expanded beyond its Seoul, Korea, headquarters to operations in Japan, Indonesia, and China, and has its US facilities in Irvine, CA.

While Phiaton's products are currently only sold direct and through certain online retailers such as Amazon.com, the company is looking at entering high-quality brick-and-mortar distributors. They do not want their products mingling with the big-box brands.

Hyo unzips a black carrying case to reveal the MS 400. It is even more beautiful in person. She unravels the cord and presents the 'phones to me. I hold them in my hand and consider their weight. They are extremely light: 6.5 ounces, to be exact. I place them over my ears. They are just as comfortable as they are light, perhaps more so. I can imagine wearing these for long periods of time, happily, without becoming frustrated by their weight or their general presence over my ears. And I am sensitive to that sort of thing. In fact, I kind of like having them on my ears. Life seems almost better with them over my head. I do not want to take them off.

Not only attractive and comfortable, the MS 400 is also strong. Hyo tells me that their carbon-fiber enclosures can withstand the impact of a 9mm bullet. Hmm, a bonus! Not that I would plan on using them as some sort of bullet-proof ear-vest, but it's nevertheless good to know, especially for those of us who walk the mean city streets.

Hyo cues up a song on an iPod. I listen. It's something new to me: "Funky Bahia," off of Sergio Mendes's Encanto. I am immediately—immediately—impressed by the bass. It is tight, fast, and clean, but not at all overwhelming. It's good and fun. I can barely feel the headphones on my head, and I hear nothing outside of the music. I look up to see that Hyo and Kay are talking, but all I hear is Sergio.

I reach for my own iPod Nano and turn to something more familiar. Cat Power's rendition of "Aretha, Sing One For Me." Why not? Again, I am immediately impressed by the impact, weight, and clarity of the presentation. Whether the sound of the MS 400 would prove fatiguing over time, I cannot say. I would need to listen longer; I certainly want to listen longer.

However, we move on to Phiaton's PS 300 NC. These noise-cancelling headphones are part of the company's Primal Series and, at $299, cost just $50 more than the MS 400. The PS 300 NC's rechargeable lithium battery is good for 18 hours of listening—great for those really long flights. Kay tells me that the PS 300 NC, unlike other noise-cancelling headphones, will continue to play music even if the NC battery dies. That said, Phiaton has made it so you don't have too much worry about it. A second battery ($50 value) is included in the package. Also included is a handy battery charger which works in conjunction with a USB cable, allowing users to charge the battery with a PC, laptop, or on the go. Inside the attractive carrying case, you'll also find a 4.9' cord, dual-plug adaptor for air travel, and adaptor clips.

Kay goes on to explain that the PS 300 NC uses Phiaton's patented Valves of the Heart Sound Technology (VHST) to control airflow into and out of the headphone speakers, and thus avoid the "howling effect" which so often plagues noise-cancelling designs. In addition, the PS 300 NC's Adaptive Acoustic Impedance Control—activated by a small switch located at the bottom of each headphone enclosure—allows the user to select between two bass settings. (While listening, I switch back and forth to hear a subtle but meaningful shift in perspective, and I prefer the bass engaged while the noise-cancelling feature is activated.) A mute button on the PS 300 NC's cord, Hyo tells me, is convenient for when the flight attendant comes by to offer you another drink. Indeed.

While not as physically striking as the frigging luscious MS 400, the PS 300 NC is very handsome, dressed in black leather and with a champagne trim. Some may prefer the PS 300's understated looks. It, too, is incredibly light (5 ounces) and extremely comfortable, though it doesn't quite achieve the same sort of total skull-caress provided by the MS 400. And, while the sound was engaging—Chan still tugged at my heart—I preferred the impact and sway of the less expensive MS 400. Of course, the MS 400 lacks the PS 300's noise-cancelling feature. Finally, for a good time, when listening to the PS 300 NC, I had to turn the volume up a bit higher on my Nano.

Specifications on the PS 300 NC, for those who are into that kind of thing:

Impedance: 32 Ohm
Sensitivity: 98dB
Max Input Power: 1000mW

For the build-quality and technology, the PS 300 NC strikes me as a good value, makes me believe that there are still some bargains in this old city.

During our meeting, I also get to see Phiaton's PS 200. Like the MS 400, these in-ear 'phones cost $249. They come with a small, clever carrying case which holds an airplane adaptor and a selection of three silicon fit-tips. They use dual-balanced armatures and feature a design meant to resemble (but not sound like) jet engines. Very cool. Stay tuned: John Atkinson is working on a review.

I stand and we say our goodbyes. Thank you for your time. It has been a pleasure. Outside, it is just beginning to rain. I raise the collar on my winter coat and walk back to 261 Madison Avenue with a mind full of good memories and great music.

Think: Respect,
Call Me,
A Bridge Over Troubled Water, and
I Can't See Myself Leaving You.

Ven's picture

Well Stephen, how would you rate MS 400s on something like an audiophile scale? Somewhere along the lines of HD 580 that Stereophile appreciated.

Doug Bowker's picture

Stephen- As a fan of your blog I'd like to request you and Stereophile consider a Kindle version of your blog. I have no idea what it takes to do this, but as a new Kindle owner, I now use it for most of my web (and print) reading and a number of blogs have adopted compatible versions. It'd be cool to have a whole magazine version to at some point, although that's probably is much more complicated. But since you have an electronic version already, maybe it's not? Anyway, my two cents and as always, great work!Doug

Stephen Mejias's picture

I'm sorry, Ven, but I can't make any meaningful comparison between the Phiaton MS 400 and the Sennheiser HD 580, or any other headphones for that matter. I am not experienced enough, and I didn't have any other headphones on hand during my brief meeting with Phiaton. In Wes's review, however, Wes does compare the Phiatons to the Grado RS-1 and the AKG K-701.Thanks for the comment, Doug. I'm not sure what it would take to create Kindle versions of our website and magazine, but I'll forward your idea to our webmaster, Jon Iverson.