Sunday, April 4, 2010

Headphone Shoot-out Part 1.

As many of us were enjoying the craziness of March Madness and working on our brackets, I thought I would do a little bit of the same. In the spirit of March Madness, it is time for a headphone shoot-out. I included a few lower brackets in the $100 range. The models include over the ear, IEM's, and active noise cancelling. To be more subjective, the shoot-out will be split into two parts. Part one will be for the over the head models. Part two will be for the IEM's.

The over the ear models shooting it out today will be six different models from Audio-Technica, Koss, Shure, and Sennheiser. Starting off is an Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC27 for $119.95, with active noise cancelling. Next is Shure's SRH840 for 199.95, Audio-Technica's ATH-M50 for $199.95, ATH-AD700 for $259.95, Koss QZ900 for $249.99 and finally, last but not least, is Sennheiser HD600 for $519.95. For testing, I threw an arsenal of different music types at them. The testing tracks included- Bachbusters: Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, Eagles: Easy Peaceful Feeling, Blue Smith: Raindance, Fresh Aire I: Chocolate Fudge, FutureSex: SexyBack, Dead or Alive's Album Rip It Up: You Spin Me Round, Star Wars Trilogy: Throne Room and Finale, Very Best of Erich Kunzel: Sing, Sing, Sing and Sonic Overload for their test tones. Now with all that said, it's time for the Shoot-out!

We will start off with Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC27. It is an over the ears closed back dynamic design active noise cancelling headphones. The fit and finish is of good quality overall. The ear cups had a soft leather pad that felt good. The cable was detachable and came with a nice semi-hard zippered case. The active noise cancelling circuitry was run off a single AAA battery. The battery door was conveniently designed on the exterior of the headphone, making it easy to change the battery which was good for up to 40 hours. I was surprised at the functionality. Without the noise cancelling turned on, the headphones sounded ok. Bachbusters sounded good, with nice base extension and output. The Eagles sounded slightly muffled, but fairly smooth. Blue Smith sounded clean and smooth with a good sound stage and natural sounding drums. It sounded about what I expected for active noise cancelling at that price point, remembering that alot of the cost goes toward that circuitry. But when you turn on the noise cancelling feature, to my pleasant surprise, the active noise cancelling did more than it's job as advertised. It also seemed to act a bit like an amplifier and yielded cleaner and crisper highs and mids. At the slight expense of a AAA battery, I would listen to them with the active noise cancelling always on.

To finish up the active noise cancelling headphones in the shoot-out, we go to the Koss QZ900 for $249.99. Doing the review also in the order of sound quality, the Koss QZ900 is next in line. While it has a higher cost than some of the other models, a large part of the cost is in the active noise cancelling design. So the end resulting sound quality is about where I expected it. The quality was good with nice leather cups that surrounded the ears, had a detachable cable with in-line volume control, and nice semi-hard zippered case for storage. One potential downside is the battery compartment design. In order to change the battery, which is good for up to 50 hours, you need to take off the ear pad. On Backbusters the crescendo is difficult to produce very well and was just a tad shaky very well. But it had a good sized sound stage, well articulated high frequency harmonics, with a nice extension and low end presence. Fresh Aire I showed a natural sounding piano with a very clean sound, nice bass extension, and good resolution and harmonics. FutureSex provided a nice low bass extension cleanly, a nice sound stage, and natural clean vocals. The test tones on Sonic Overload showed drop off around 35-30hz with usable output to around 18hz. The active noise cancelling did extremely well, and appeared to eliminate the noise around 90%, and had no degradation to the music. Kudos.

Shure produced a fine product in the SRH840. It also features a closed back dynamic design. It features a partly collapsing design for easier storage. Everything is of excellent quality, even the packaging which included a nice users manual, leather pouch, and even an extra set of leather ear cups. They even had a detachable cable. Impressed with the look and build quality, I was curious if it sounded just as good and I was not disappointed. Fresh Aire I: Chocolate Fudge provided a natural sounding piano, extremely crisp percussion, very nice upper range harmonics, but fairly flat bass. Justin Timberlake's: FutureSex had excellent mid and high details and vocal transparency, and subdued bass. The Star Wars Trilogy had a great sound stage and dynamics, lots of resolution, and was very natural sounding. Erich Kunzel: Sing, Sing, Sing, was light and airy, had a great sound stage, great resolution, and very clean sounding. I was impressed. For a closed back dynamic design, they sounded airy, and had great resolution. Sonic Overload's test tones showed what I seemed to hear. Base extension dropped off at around 35hz, and usable to around 28hz. I tend to like more bass. If you don't like a lot of bass these could be great for you. It did provide bass extension, it was just a little subdued compared to others.

Next up is the Audio-Technica ATH-M50. They are another excellent quality in build and material set of headphones. Although at this price point, they all should be. A closed back dynamic circumaural design like the Shure's, and like the the Shure's the fit was very comfortable. I also liked the metal end with a screw on for the also metal 1/4" adapter. It also came with the traditional leather pouch. Blue Smith had a nice big sound stage, great resolution, natural sounding drums, and clean sax. Fresh Aire I showed very crisp percussion, very natural sounding piano, better bass extension and output, and good resolution. Rip It Up had nice bass output, nice sound stage, clean vocals, and good resolution. Star Wars Trilogy was very clean sounding, gave a big sound stage, lots of resolution, great dynamics and fairly smooth sounding. They weren't quite as light and airy sounding as the Shure's but had much more low end extension and output. It was supported by Sonic Overload's test tones, that showed drop off at around 26hz and usable output to around 20hz.

The Audio-Technica ATH-AD700 is an Open Air dynamic design. Again, the build quality is great, with soft velvet pads, high end cable with titanium sheathing and a nice metal connector. It also uses a unique 3D wing support that makes them feel light when you wear them. Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor did not have as much oomph in the low end. But it did have very crisp highs and nice big sound stage. It had great resolution but bass output was subdued. Rain Dance was nice and detailed with lots of resolution, very smooth sounding sax, and large sound stage. The tambourine was very crisp. Chocolate Fudge also provided very crisp percussion, excellent resolution, and an airy sound. The bass was again subdued in output, but the sound stage was large and the piano was very natural sounding. You Spin Me Round had crisp percussion, good bass extension however subdued, and great resolution. Sing, Sing, Sing provided excellent resolution and dynamics, a large sound stage, and was very clean sounding. These Audio-Technica's had a great sound. Bass output was subdued like the Shure's, but it did provide better extension. Test tones showed the same, with drop off around 34hz and usable to around 26hz. They had a more wide sound stage and airy sound than the Shure's, but the open air design also means you can hear more easily the environment around you. But if you like the design, the sound is great.

Last but not least is Sennheiser's HD600, which is another Open Air Dynamic Circumaural Design. Build quality is extremely good in a marble type finish, very comfortable velvet pads, and detachable cable which surprisingly are on both cups (most current headphones have the cable on only one side). Instead of a leather pouch the headphones are stored in a black vinyled fiberboard box with a cutout foam interior for a custom fit. Bachbusters had a big sound stage, very smooth and clean highs. They provided lots of resolution. I did notice that the drivers were not as efficient as there a noticable drop in volume output at the same volume setting of my player. When listening to Blue Smith there was a wide sound stage, crisp tambourine, great pitch definition and low level dynamics. The drums sounded natural. Rip It Up had excellent resolution, very crisp and clean sounding, nice bass extension, and clear vocals. Erich Kunzel shared excellent detail and resolution, was light and airy with excellent dynamics, provided very clean harmonics and good bass definition. The sound was amazing and took things to a whole new level. However, at it's price point, it was expected. Bass out put was just slightly subdued, but again I prefer a lot of bass. Everything else sounded amazing. Sonic Overload test tones showed dropoff around 30hz and usable down to 20hz.

All in all, part one of the sound-off would go to Sennheiser. But the two Audio-Technica's and the Shure would follow in a very close 2nd, 3rd and 4th place. And just like a lower tier team can pull an upset by a last second shot at the buzzer, we all have our personal preferences. Bottom line, all of these great products are a good value, especially when two of the models also include active noise cancellation. For more info and complete specs, please check out the manufacturer's website, listed below. If you are in the market for high quality headphones, you will want to give these some attention and a listening to. Enjoy. I sure did!,,,