Katz's Corner Episode 10: Mid-Priced Sealed Headphone Survey

This story originally appeared at InnerFidelity.com

Editors Note: About six months ago, Jon Iverson (Stereophile's DAC reviewer and web monkey extraordinaire) was in need of evaluating headphones for his home studio. I accumulated a box of what I thought were the best $200-$500 sealed headphones and sent them off. The box at that time did not contain the Oppo PM3. Jon's comments were similar to Bob's that follow here, though his pick of the litter was the NAD VISO HP50. One wonders what his response would have been if the PM3 was in the box?

I felt Jon's experience was interesting and felt Bob would be a great person to repeat the trials on these potentially useful studio headphones and offer his thoughts here. It's interesting to note that though this box has taken me quite a few years to accumulate, and I think all the cans therein are worthy of merit in the context of what's available out there, Bob came to feel some of the cans in the box were pretty poor performers. Oh, if he would only have the need to listen to all the stuff that crosses my doorway---that would be a rude awakening.

At any rate, I find Bob's article a breath of fresh air...a transparent peek into the mind and ears of a master listener; a picture of incisive audio evaluation as done by one intimately familiar with the sound of music. Enjoy!

Mid-priced Sealed Headphone Evaluation
Tyll has sent me an assortment of riches, a box full of midpriced headphones for my perspective. I want to be as objective as possible about these headphones so I will not look up any prior reviews (including Tyll's own), no manufacturer's blurbs, or even price lists. Why should I care if a headphone costs $200 or $2000? What counts is the sound, and secondarily the comfort, functionality and to some extent the look and feel. The only headphone in this bunch that I am mildly familiar with is the Oppo PM-3. I once skimmed a review long ago and have long since forgotten the details.

For all these tests I am using my custom M3 amplifier, which has the poost (that's a technical term) to drive any impedance headphone to its full potential. I will not apply any equalization. The player is JRiver Media Center, dithered to 24 bits into my aging (but highly regarded) Slim Devices Transporter DAC. I will use mostly 2496 master files that I know intimately, all of which I have mastered myself and some I have recorded as well, many of which are available as CD releases if you'd like to check them out. You might wonder if this is a fair approach compared to using "standard recordings": Well, I'm using excellent recordings at 2496, the 1644 CD releases of which are available to you, which I am thoroughly familiar with, mastered with and auditioned on my calibrated loudspeaker system. That's my standard. Even if you disagree with my premise, at least you will agree that my judgments are potentially as objective and consistent as a subjective review can get! I know what these recordings should sound like.

The M3 has a 1 dB/step monitor control, so I can subjectively compare the sensitivity of the headphone under review against my Audeze LCD-X cans, in case this is a help to you. The thing about sensitivity which most people choose to ignore: It's a pretty loose spec! Because the brighter the headphone, the more likely it will sound louder than another headphone with identical sensitivity at 1 kHz. Louder is part of the game that manufacturers play to make a headphone seem to sound "better". So the subjective judgment of sensitivity probably means more than the electrical measure. In my case, I adjust the M3's gain till the headphone under test sounds as loud as the reference headphone.

If I like the headphone under test, I'll listen to more than one reference cut to see if the impressions hold up. I must admit that many of these cans weren't worth a second listen. But a few of these are worthy gems, especially at the price.

Alright, let's have a listen to the headphones...