Phiaton Moderna MS 400 headphones Page 2

My only other, very slight, concern was the shortness of the MS 400's cable. It's probably adequate for portable use, but using Phiatons with a desktop system kept me on too a short tether.

I was able to drive the MS 400s to greater levels than I could endure with just about any source I had, from an iPod Shuffle G1 to my iPod Classic G6. In fact, when I drove the Phiatons with the Cayin HA-1A headphone amplifier, they were so sensitive that I heard the tube rush of the Cayin's 6DJ8s at lower volume levels than I had with the harder-to-drive Sennheisers and AKGs.

Beauty is how you feel inside
The Phiaton Moderna MS 400s had a superbly tight low end. If you think headphones have to wimp out down under, then these are right up your alley. I'm not saying they overemphasized the bottom end; rather, they gloried in it. On "Reelin' and Rockin'," from Johnny Hodges' Blues A-Plenty (CD, Verve/Classic 8358), Jimmy Wood lays down a walking bass line that simply nails the song to the ground. Through the Phiatons, it was full-bodied and primal. Roy Eldridge's trumpet rang pure and vivid—and with crystalline clarity. In the background—deep in the background—I could hear Billy Strayhorn growling approval as Hodges, Ben Webster, and Vic Dickenson traded solos. It's an impressive outing, and the MS 400s delivered it all.

In contrast with the big-hearted strut of "Reelin' and Rockin'," John Martin's "Small Hours," from One World (CD, Island 9819222), looks inward. Over a warm, very deep, down-low heartbeat, Martin's distorted electric guitar sighs and wahs as a marimba plays soft chords in the background. Midway through the song, Martin sings (chants, really) a short poem about love. The rest of the song is mostly atmospheric noodling. Sounds kind of sappy, right? It's like writing about feeling, which is always sappier than actually feeling—the song is quite lovely and strangely effective, and the Phiatons excelled at capturing its fleeting grace. I'd heard "Small Hours" many times; the MS 400s made me listen to it.

Till Fellner's superb recording of Book 1 of J.S. Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier (CD, ECM New Series 1853/54) hurtled along with great velocity and crisp articulation. The Phiatons captured Fellner's superb pacing, and let me hear the reverberant acoustic of Vienna's Jugendstiltheater with great precision.

Lafayette Gilchrist's "Assume the Position," from The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist (AIF file, HDTracks download), was a freaking steamroller, baby. The drums and electric bass frog-marched the beat, annihilating almost any other rhythm section working today, while members of Gilchrist's large ensemble followed with solo after solo. Buy this disc—keep this group working!

Sorry. Got carried away there, didn't I? Well, the MS 400s could do that to me. If you want to feel your music, not just hear it, you could do a lot worse.

By plucking the petals, you do not gather the beauty of the flower
My go-to sealed-back headphones are the Sennheiser HD280 Pros ($99), but Stereophile policy is to compare new products under review with components that have already been reviewed, so that readers have a known quantity in the mix—and I haven't yet gotten around to reviewing the HD280 Pros. So I either have to compare the Phiatons with the Grado RS-1s, which I reviewed in 1996; or with the AKG K701s, which I reviewed in 2006. Neither review is, strictly speaking, completely on point, since both of those headphones are open-backed, the Grados sold for $699, the AKGs go for $450, and the Phiaton Moderna MS 400s cost only $249—but needs must when the devil rides.

Do take it as a given, however, that neither the Grado nor the AKG could be driven by a portable digital player, which is not only what the MS 400 was designed to do, but, in all probability, will be what it is most often asked to do.

On Lafayette Gilchrist's "Assume the Position," the Grados had a lot more bottom end—perhaps too much. The Phiatons had an equal amount of slam, and the forward motion of the track was more compelling. The Grados emphasized the sheen of the brass, bringing out the harmonic overtones but flirting dangerously close to shrillness. The Phiatons, however, seemed a bit hooded and slightly darker. If I had to pick a poison, it'd be the Phiatons.

The same track through the AKGs confirmed that the Phiatons did rob the music of a touch of sparkle. The AKGs are far flatter in the upper octaves than the Grados, but even so, the MS 400 was missing a bit of ease and harmonic overtoniness, to coin an especially unnecessary word. I assume you get my drift—Phiaton has turned out an awfully good close-backed headphone, but it hasn't eliminated all of the breed's foibles.

Beauty is not caused. It is.
That is not to underestimate what Phiaton has done in the Moderna MS 400. It is, on the whole, a superb product that will appeal to many listeners. Neither a bargain nor high-priced at $249, the MS 400 falls midway between the Sennheiser HD280 Pro and the AKG K701.

There are a host of reasons to buy it: It's easy to drive. It's extremely musical—time after time, the MS 400 made me drop my "just doing my job" faćade and get deep into the musical moment. If you like music that moves you, the MS 400 is an admirable delivery device. And if you also need to keep your workspace or your commute quiet, the Phiatons do that, too.

Yes, Mr. Smith the smith: sometimes, beauty itself is its own reward.

Phiaton Inc.
18662 MacArthur Blvd., Suite 405
Irvine, CA 92612
(866) 313-3203