Katz's Corner Episode 10: Mid-Priced Sealed Headphone Survey - Oppo PM3

KatzCorner_Ep10_Photo_OppoPM3

Oppo PM-3
I've never previously auditioned any of Oppo's cans nor have I read Tyll's reviews (yet), but I'm definitely intrigued by what Tyll has said after experiencing the PM-3. I don't know the price off hand, but this is the only model I recognize. Their weight indicates a pretty heavy magnet assembly resides in this case. Based on the weight and the "PM" designation, I bet these are Planar Magnetic. But no one will notice the weight on the head, they feel as light as any normal headphone, just "hefty". In contrast, my Audeze LCD-X could use some anti-gravity. Of course the world's lightweight audiophile winners are the Stax Electrostatics. I could wear the Stax all day, but be tethered to the electrostatic amplifier in my listening room. Sadly, the electrostats are not portable! I await the sound of these Oppos with baited breath....

These terminate in about a 1 meter long cord with a 4-pin 1/8" but at least the 4th terminal makes some sense as there is a cord-mounted switch intended for signaling to an iPhone or other portable. I suspect these are fairly pricey phones given their weight and the "PM" designation. Getting a longer cord would not be a problem as there is a mating 1/8" connector on the shell of the left ear, ripe for after-market cables.

The pads are also rectangular but making up for this is that they fit around my ears and have the best cushioning of the current lot under review. I give these a B+ for comfort. You can wear these a long time. With a closed back, they could have a more closed-in sound than open-back phones, but the up side can be extended and deep bass—hopefully without a bass resonance if there's sufficient damping in the design—and better isolation, of course.

OK, time to listen....

Listening note: Maria Dalegria, Mambo Dalegria. 2496 BK master, Latin Jazz, not available to the public (sorry). I play this cut because of the five-string electric bass that goes down to the center of the earth, plus the clear and brashy (but not harsh) trumpets, natural vocal and other acoustic instruments present a full-spectrum extravaganza. Maybe I can get the group to release their three song album as a high-res on my site. Tyll has experienced this cut when I visited Bozeman, and he can share with you its virtues. Send me your votes and I'll talk to the group.

Sensitivity is about the same as the Audeze. I hear a robust, attractive, full quality right off the bat. The bass is a tad over-emphasized between 70 Hz through about 100, but this is not serious, more like a subtle signature than a problem. Excitingly, the bass extends down to at least 40 Hz with a bit of that extra resonance that is still pleasant. The presence and high frequency ranges are just a bit laid back but not unpleasant. Overall they have a warm tone and are very accurate, with a smooth response from about 90 through 2 k and a slow rolloff above that but not that serious if you like your sound a little bit dark. The stereo image seems a bit smaller than the Audeze, but I'll bet that with a high frequency EQ shelf the soundstage will improve.

If only I can get a dB or so rise from about 4 kHz on up. But I definitely won't kick these out of bed. In fact, these are so good I need to put on my LCD-X for a direct comparison: Here goes...Aha!...I am right. The LCD-X do extend higher and have a better presence range than the PM-3. Overall better high end. Well, that's why Audeze get the big bucks. But, are the LCD-X worth a serious multiple of the price of these PM-3's? I can't wait, so I do look up the price: $399 at Amazon. These PM-3s are less than 1/4 the price of the LCD-X with 90% of the virtues! Amazing.

Back to the Oppos. Well, that short cord is annoying. The high end and presence range is very easy to get used to; it is only a little bit subdued. I'm already used to it...with a tiny bit of eq these could be AMAZING.

We deserve some extended listening:

Listening note: Marley's Ghost. Cowboy's Lullaby, BK master, 2496 from the album, Spooked. Recorded and associate produced by Daniel Protheroe at Sage Arts studios, near Seattle. Matt Gephart also engineered. Produced by the great Van Dyke Parks of Beach Boys and other fame, who also played numerous instruments. Guest artist: Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Marley's managed to swing Robert Crumb for his instantly-identifiable cover art. This Americana artist goes out of their way to be special and original. An acoustic music treat, highly recommended, as are all the Marley's Ghost albums, most of which I have mastered.

The headphone sound: Sweet, the stereo image is good, but not tremendous, the ambience is a bit subdued, unlike the Stax or the Audeze. But I'm betting the ambience would come back with a hair of an HF eq boost. The bass all the way through to the upper midrange is smooth and accurate without fatigue. I like these cans. I mean, I love these cans!

The vocal harmonies are heavenly beautiful. The acoustic bass instrument is tight, extended and well-defined. The bass resonance I heard earlier is barely noticeable on this cut, because this upright bass is supposed to be bold and sassy anyway. I know, because I mastered this album!

Listening note: Brick House. Sara K, 2496 from Chesky Records, available on HD Tracks or on CD. My audiophile 2496 recording and master. This became the world's first 2496 audio-only DVD.

Nearly all the virtues of this recording are revealed with these Oppo cans. Just a bit of loss of air frequencies with the rest in a very pleasant, warm, round, sweet picture, just like the master. I definitely love these phones. Is this because I naturally favor Planar magnetics or is it that Planar Magnetics wipe the floor with every competing moving coil driver?

Sara's vocal fundamentals sound just right to me. All the fundamentals, midrange and harmonics of the acoustic guitars are just right. The harmonica has the perfect tone, minus the extreme harmonics, as I mentioned.

These headphones share the robust quality, impact, smoothness and power of their big Planar Magnetic buddies, but they are much lighter, much more comfortable and at a bargain price for the quality.

OK, I need to break my "no EQ" rule. I'm going to run an EQ and see what it does for these Oppos:

Listening note: Main Street, Redstick Ramblers, 2496, BK master, equalized with Acourate Convolver. Texas Swing described elsewhere.

Using the excellent high frequency tilting EQ in Acourate Convolver, with 1 to 1.3 dB tilting boost above 1 kHz: This is a warm recording, originally from 1/2" 30 IPS. As soon as I turn up the HF a little bit, it sounds just right, open and very nice. The bass level did not suffer at all with the HF boost, which is a good indication that these phones are pretty neutral, since I'm not tempted to make a smile-shaped EQ. The bass still sounds just a hair hotter than absolute accuracy even with the HF boost applied but I don't feel like rushing to turn the bass down. In any event it would not be more than 1/4 to 1/2 dB downward shelf below 100 Hz if one were so inclined. The tilt EQ in Acourate Convolver makes the perfect ultimate tone control for the extremes. If a headphone is so non-linear as to need other frequency tweaks you wonder if it would be better to pass on it.

The sacrifices are small: The microdynamics are subtly subdued compared to the Audeze LCD-X, but I'm really being picky and maybe I just haven't cranked the Oppos as loudly as I do the Audeze. The soundstage is smaller then the Audeze because the sound appears to come from the sides, from the transducers rather than seducing you in a holographic U-shape like the Audeze. But give me a break: the Audeze Soundstage is due to their big diaphragms and spacious cups, but with a tremendous price and weight. In contrast, boy are these Oppos portable!

Oppo has hit the sweet spot among accuracy, impact and portability. These are very small sacrifices for such a tremendous price/performance ratio. Reminds me of my Mazda Miata. It's a little car, without much absolute power, but so light that it takes off and makes you feel like you're at Le Mans. And I can afford it, while I could not afford a Porsche Boxter. So I've got the poor man's Boxter, and now I lust after "the poor man's Audeze" - The Oppo PM-3.

Listening note: Craven Walker by The Shed from their album Goldfish Love. BK master 2496. Equalized with Acourate Convolver. What a beautiful, melodic, interesting, creative, driving Irish rock group. If you can find the CD, highly recommended by their mastering engineer.

With an HF boost from Acourate Convolver: Killer sound! These phones have everything now. As I said, the only nit to pick is that the soundstage comes from the sides and does not have the big wraparound effect of the larger, more spacious Stax or Audeze. But this is a common problem for every small-cup headphone, not limited to the Oppos. With EQ it makes the best lightweight over-the-ear cans I've ever heard!

Now I will seriously consider an Astell and Kearn or a Pono to take around and replace my iPhone. I could not have justified carrying around a set of bulky LCD-X, but the PM-3 are just the right size and weight, and have accuracy galore. Most impressive. Unfortunately the Pono does not have an equalizer. Why would they eschew that feature given the tremendous variance in headphones, and also given that a good EQ can turn a B+ phone into an A+!

I listened to a bunch of other reference cuts of mine and I found no surprises: The hits just keep on coming. This is my winner headphone, with EQ. And frankly, it's very good without EQ.

Bottom line: $399 at Amazon. Jump on 'em at this price. I have surely found the sweet spot in price/performance ratio. This is my Nirvana mid-priced dream can, and with even better sound than I expected in a mid-priced can, so I can justify a $400 price. Hey, Shure gets $499 for a greatly inferior product! If possible use a little high frequency boost EQ, with which you will have a very sweet, open, clean, punchy and accurate headphone rivaling unequalized models costing many times the price.

Read full InnerFidelity Oppo PM3 review.
Product page for Oppo PM3.

Conclusion
There are some nice finds in this bunch. Thank you, Tyll for sending me this bunch of headphones. It must be really hard to make an accurate headphone, because they are so rare.

First place by a mile is the Oppo PM-3, which could be the best price/performance ratio on the market! Second place is the NAD VISO HP50, only if it fits on your ears. Also ran: The B&W P7, pretty good tone but poor wearability. Ironically, I prefer an inaccurate phone for third place: Surprisingly, the Audio Technica ATHM50x, because its faults are euphonic and it makes a great portable utility can. Who can argue with "euphonic" unless you're an audiophile recording engineer or an anal-compulsive like me?

Editor's Note: You're welcome, Bob, and thank you for such a refreshing and direct review. I'm sure InnerFidelity readers will enjoy your take!

Just a couple notes:

The NAD VISO HP 50 you reviewed did have some ergonomic changes in the headband, and ongoing improvements to pad materials (I don't think the size has changed, however). So they might fit a bit better now.

The B&W P7 you experience was from the first production run, which did suffer from pad materials different than specified by B&W. These are somewhat improved now.

The Audio Technica M50x is truly an outstanding value.

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