Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Headphone Shootout Part 1 - The Over The Ear Models

Now that it is March, many of you know what that means. It is time for March Madness, with teams duking it out in the NCAA basketball tournament to get to the #1 spot. It also means it is time for our 2nd Annual Headphone Shootout! With teams battling it out on the court, we thought this is also a great time for headphones to also battle it out. We have headphones from some great manufacturers, from traditional to in-ear monitors. Part one today will be for the “over the ear” style, with prices ranging from $80 to $314. The shoot-out will include design, build quality, features, specs, and listening tests. The headphones covered are the Tank Blizzard from Aerial7, Ultrasone Zio, Sennheiser HD238i, Ultrasone DJ1, German Maestro G8.35D, Audio-Technica ATH-A900 and ATH-AD900, and Beyerdynamic DT 990.

Starting from lowest price to highest, we will start with the Aerial7. Build quality and construction for the Aerial7 Tank Blizzard was good. It featured white plastic that appeared durable, and white covered earpads and headband. The cord was nice and thick and on one side. The terminal was gold plated and included additional attachment to use for Skype with a built in microphone. There was also a PC connectors for headphone and microphone. It was also a nice DJ type fit. The ear cups went over your ears for a comfortable fit. The ear cups also rotated for monitoring with one ear use when DJing. With the included mic, they are a versatile product that can be used for personal listening, DJing, gaming, and with cell phones. Fit and finish was good.

The Aerial7 Tank Blizzard also has some good features and specs, with an $80 MSRP. They include:

•Engineered to deliver the highest-quality listening experience from your Apple iPod®, iPhone®, BlackBerry®, or other mp3 player, cell phone or music device.

•Swivel ear cup with spring return for single-sided monitoring Rubberized, soft touch finish for a premium look and feel.

•Soft, pliable headband for comfortable extended listening.

•Includes two cables: 1) thick coiled cable for standard music players, 2) thin straight cable with microphone for iPhone®, BlackBerry® and other cell phones.

•Driver Diameter: 57mm

•Impedance: 64Ω

•Frequency Response: 5-20KHz

•Sensitivity (S.P.L.): 108±3dB (at 1KHz)

•Input Plug Diameter: 3.5mm and 3.5mm iPhone® included.

The Aerial7 Yank Blizzard also had a nice sound. Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, had fairly crisp percussion, and a slightly warm sound. The piano sounded good. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, had a good soundstage and decent resolution. Although considering the price point, it was very good. And again considering the price point, imaging was very good. No Doubt- Hella Good, yielded good vocals and bass extension. Dynamics were ok. This track has a lot of energy, and it came out well. With Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock & Roll, again it gave nice vocals and soundstage. The sax however did sound a tad reserved. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the guitar was sufficiently crisp, with ok resolution.

The Ultrasone Zio is a lightweight compact semi-open supra aural design, and a $129.95 MSRP. It is a fold-up portable design for iPod, mp3, and other portable players. The construction is mostly plastic, that appeared durable enough. It’s ear pads are foam with a cloth cover. And when folding the headphones, they really were quite compact, and fit very easily in the included semi-hard carrying case. Fit and finish appeared good. I was a bit surprised to see cords on both earcups. Most models these days only have a cord on one of the earcups.

It’s features and specs include:

■S-Logic™ Natural Surround Sound

■S-Logic™ PLUS

■MU-Metal Shielding (ULE-Technology)

■Safer Hearing

■S-LogicTM Natural Surround Sound

ULE technology (=Ultra Low Emission)

■MU Metal bufferboard, reduced field emissions in accordance with the ULE standard

■Dynamic principle

■Frequency range 25 - 25.000 Hz

■Impedance 35 Ohm

Sound pressure level 101 dB

■Driver 40mm gold-plated

■Weight 84g (without cord)

■Cord length: ca. 1.10m (OFC Cable)

■Aluminium 3,5mm gold-plated slim-plug

Here is what Ultrasone has to say about some of their unique design and features: "Unique? Yes! Revolutionary? Definitely! The patented S-Logic™ technology is described as Natural Surround Sound System. No other digital surround system can compare with this standard. As the sound of a normal headphones will sound direct and even on both sides, the S-Logic™ system pushes the sound around your head! It appears as though you are listening to speakers meters away. Even at very low levels, this spacious sound allows you to hear and listen to each and every individual sound. And on top of that, the S-Logic™ technology does not require additional equipment! How does S-LogicTM Natural Surround Sound work? S-Logic™ sends music around your head not just into it, because this technology uses decentralized driver positioning. Did you know that you use and need the outer ear for your three-dimensional understanding to define the direction and distance where a sound comes from? Instead of hitting the inner ear directly, with S-Logic™ the signals are reflected off the surface of the outer ear in different directions before entering the auditory canal to create a natural three-dimensional Sound. S-Logic™ is the only headphone system which includes your entire sense of hearing. S-Logic™ does not change your personal hearing, it intensifies it for your individual needs and listening pleasure. S-Logic™ does neither need artificial echo nor digital sound processing or cross over run time delay. You can hear the sound just the way the sound engineer has mastered it. S-Logic™ does not only create a Natural Surround Sound sensation. S-Logic™ allows at the same time a reduction of sound pressure levels at the eardrum by up to 40% (3 - 4 dB). This may reduce the risk of hearing damage while ensuring hours of fatigue-free listening."

The Ultrasone did have a pleasant sound. Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, was just a tad bright, but very natural sounding. The soundstage was about average. Percussion was very crisp sounding. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, provided a nice soundstage with good imaging. Piano was natural sounding. The bassoon had good texture. Dynamics were also good, as well as the level of resolution. No Doubt- Hella Good, bass was nice and tight with good extension. Treble was again a tad bright. Vocals were very clean sounding. With Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock & Roll, the vocals sounded great. Dynamics were good and the sax sounded natural. The harmonica solo sounded a tad reserved. With Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, acoustic guitar was nice and clean, and the resolution was sufficient. Vocals were quite smooth, and it had a nice soundstage.

Next up is the Sennheiser HD238i, with an MSRP of $169.95. It is another lightweight compact design. It’s construction is primarily black plastic that appeared fairly durable. Fit and finish were good, and they were comfortable to wear. Their cloth covered foam pads fit on the ear.

Their features and specs include:

Engineered on legendary Sennheiser Performance specifically for Apple iPhone, iPod and iPad series

Includes a 3 button control and mic for management of calls and music

Advanced Open-Aire acoustic system (does not block sound*...for the serious audiophile) Carrying pouch included for easy storage and protection

Fold-flat design travels easily

Premium metallic components and exchangeable earpads for superior performance and durability

Optimised for iPod, iPhone, MP3 and CD players (iPhone and iPod are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.)

Built-tough with a 2 YEAR warranty!

*for noise blocking on-ear headphones, see the HD 218i.

Carrying pouch

Cable length 4.5 ft. (1.4 m.)

Ear coupling

On-the-ear Frequency response (headphones) 16 - 23,000 Hz

Impedance 32 ohms

Jack plug 1/8

Sound pressure level (SPL) 114 dB (1kHz/1Vrms)

Total harmonic distortion (THD) < 0.5% (1kHz/1Vrms)

Transducer principle Dynamic, open

UPC code 615104186361

EAN code 4044155055030

Dimensions (single) 7.5 x 2 x 7.9 in Weight (single) 10.6 oz

I was impressed with the sound of the Sennheiser HD238i. Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, the sound was really crisp and clean, with natural sounding piano. The flute sounded a tad thin. The midbass was very nice and had great pitch definition in the drums. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, had good resolution, although the clarinet was not quite as woody sounding as I would have liked. It had a nice big soundstage. The horns sounded smooth without being too brassy. The imaging was great! No Doubt- Hella Good, had great bass extension that came thru with good authority. I loved the sultry vocals, and really clean sound. There was a lot of energy in the track, and it all came thru great. Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock & Roll, the kick drum was tight, the sax was smooth, and the vocals were nice and clear. On Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the acoustic guitar was pleasantly crisp, with good resolution. I wasn't expecting the soundstage to be as big as it was.

The Ultrasone DJ1 is a DJ style headphone, with $219.95 MSRP. Materials used in the construction is black plastic and natural aluminum. They are comfortable over the ear design with DJ style swivel ear cups. And the ear cups feature black leather pads, and a leather covered headband. Fit and finish is of excellent quality.

Here is what Ultrasone had to say about the features of the DJ1: "S-Logic™ Plus profits directly from innovations developed for our flagship Edition range, the ultimate headphones for critical listening. This sophisticated new technology combines precision dampening with micro-acoustic reinforcement, allowing driver, buffer-board, and spatial parameters to complement one another in an optimal manner. So the acoustically redesigned ear-cups of these new models and their tonal fine-tuning result in a most neutral sound impression with more vivid perception of voices and instruments."

It’s features and specs include:

■S-Logic™ Natural Surround Sound

■S-Logic™ PLUS

ULE-Technology - MU Metal Shielding

■Safer Hearing

■Logic™ Natural Surround Sound

■Dynamic principle

■Frequency Range 10 - 22.000 Hz

■Impedance 32 Ohm

■Sound pressure level 104 dB

■Driver 50 mm Mylar

■Weight 285 g (excl. cord)

■Cord, ca. 3 m coiled

■3,5 / 6,3 mm scewable adapter

The sound quality was quite impressive. Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, was really crisp. The piano was natural sounding. Flute had a great amount of air to it, and the drums were nice and tight. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, the soundstage was really big with great imaging. The harmonics with the clarinet and trumpet soloists were excellent. Dynamics were good, and there was nice texture with the bassoon. No Doubt- Hella Good, low end extension was excellent and brought out with great authority. Stefani was quite smooth with her vocals, and the bass was nice and tight. The percussion was also crisp and clean. Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock and Roll, had a nice depth to the vocals. Sax play was great and actually quite smooth sounding. Soundstage was good as well as the imaging. Transients were also great. On Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the resolution in the acoustic guitar was very good, and the sound came out really clean. The kick drum had nice extension and depth. Vocals were really clear. The way they are designed, the drivers are mounted off angle, so they are less fatiguing for long listening periods. Testing this feature out and listening for several hours, there was no fatigue from listening. It worked pretty good.

The German Maestro GMP 8.35 D Monitor is another excellent quality over the ear design, handmade in Germany, and has an MSRP of $249.95. It is all black with a plastic housing, synthetic leather covered earpads, and what appears to be a vinyl covered foam headband. The end look is a product that appears to be designed for a lot of use. It doesn’t look fancy with a lot of splash, but is does look like it is built to take a lot of abuse! Fit and finish is extremely high! The cable is also a high quality thick cable with a gold plated screw on tip.

It’s features and specs include:

•Frequency Response: 20 - 27.400 Hz

•Nominal Impedance: 35 O

•Acoustical Principle: Closed

•Ear Pads: Synthetic leather, circumaural

•Average pressure on the ear: ~5.5 N

•Weight w/o cable: 220 g

•Connector: Stereo-Multi-Jack 3,5 / 6,3 mm

Spiralcable 1,5 / 3 m

The quality components came together in a great sounding product. Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, the strings were nice and crisp and the piano was nice and natural sounding. The resolution was excellent! The flute was a tad edgy at times. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, the soundstage was big, and the clarinet was nice and woody sounding. Dynamics were great as well as the imaging. It was also quite musical. Resolution again was excellent. Overall the sound was a tad warm. No Doubt- Hella Good, the bass was nice and tight with a lot of impact. It had nice extension and played with a good level of authority. Stefani had a sultry quality to her vocals. And dynamics were again very good. Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock & Roll, the excellent vocals came out loud and clear. The kick drum had nice impact, and the sax solo was nice and smooth. Previously, the harmonica sounded a tad reserved, but that was not the case here with the German Maestro's. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the acoustic guitar was pleasantly crisp and clean. The harmonics were excellent! It's soundstage and imaging were also good. Vocals were smooth and just a tad warm sounding.

Next are the Audio Technica ATH-A900, and $249.95 MSRP. It is a closed-back design with aluminum ear cups. It is made of plastic, aluminum, foam pad covered in cloth and leather. The cloth jacket cable with polished metal end and gold plated tip. The earcups are huge, and fit completely over the ear. And it has a pretty cool headband system that audio technical calls 3D wing support. It rests lightly on your head. Both of the earcups swivel slightly. Fit and finish are very good.

Their features and specs include:

High-quality headphones with aluminum housing D.A.D.S. (Double Air Damping System) for bass reproduction

Large aperture 53 mm drivers for high-fidelity playback Superior, deep bass and vocal projection unmatched in its class

3D Wing Support Housing offers a vibration-proof mechanism that provides comfortable support for a better listening experience

Extremely comfortable ear-fitting pads

Type Closed-back Dynamic, Double Air Damping System

Driver Diameter 53 mm

Frequency Response 5 – 40,000 Hz

Maximum Input Power 2,000 mW

Sensitivity 101 dB/mW

Impedance 40 ohms

Weight 350 g

Cable 3.0 m

Connector 3.5 mm gold-plated stereo plug

Accessory Included Detachable 1/4" (6.3 mm) adapter

Performance of the Audio-Technica ATH-A900 was excellent! With Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, the strings were extremely crisp and clean sounding, and the flute had a nice amount of air. The drums had great pitch definition in the midbass. Piano also sounded natural, and the resolution was very good! Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, the clarinet sounded very woody, and the bassoon had excellent texture. They also threw a great big soundstage. The brass sounded nice and clean without being too brassy. Dynamics and imaging were also excellent. There was also great low-level harmonics. With No Doubt- Hella Good, bass and drums were extremely tight and dynamic, with good extension and a lot of authority. Stefani's sexy lyrical vocals came thru with great definition and transparency. The whole track had a lot of harmonic energy, and every note came thru very well! Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock & Roll, bass extension was nice in the kick drums. Vocals were very clear, and the cymbals came thru well. The sax was very smooth. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the excellent acoustic guitar, soundstage, and vocals came out loud and clear, and was quite natural sounding.

The Audio Technica ATH-AD900 is a lot like the ATH-A900 but is an open design. Instead of the closed aluminum back, they have an aluminum mesh back. And instead of leather covered pads, the ear cups are covered in a soft cloth. The jacket of the cable is also plastic instead of cloth. Fit and finish is also very good. MSRP is $299.95.

Their features and specs are:

Designed with lightweight aluminum honeycomb casing for total comfort around the ears

High-quality audio with deep balanced bass

3D Wing Support Housing for comfortable listening experience

Large 53 mm aperture driver made with bobbin winding CCAW voice coil for superior sound reproduction

Type Open-air Dynamic Driver Diameter 53 mm Voice Coil Copper-clad aluminum wire Frequency Response 5 – 35,000 Hz

Maximum Input Power 700 mW

Sensitivity 100 dB/mW

Impedance 35 ohms

Weight 250 g

Cable 3.0 m elastomer sheath OFC cord

Connector 1/8" (3.5 mm) mini stereo, gold-plated

Accessory Included Detachable 1/4" (6.3 mm) adapter

Performance here was also good. On Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, the strings were very crisp. There was lots of air with the flute, and the piano sounded very natural. Bass was also there, and while there was good extension, it was quite reserved. Imaging was very nice. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, imaging was excellent, and the soundstage was very big. Timbre in the clarinet was nice, as well as excellent texture. The trumpet soloist was also very clean sounding. Low level pitch definition was great, and there were great dynamics and no noticable pitch decay. Transparency was also quite high. No Doubt- Hella Good, had nice bass extension, but with little authority. Dynamics were excellent, and the sound was crisp and clean, but just a tad bright at times. Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock & Roll, the soundstage was again excellent. I felt like I was at a concert. Vocals came thru with great definition. The sax was very clean and smooth. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, had excellent harmonics and pitch definition with great transparency on the acoustic guitar and vocals. Bass was a bit reserved. The kick drum was nice and tight, but was again a little lacking in authority.

Last but not least is the Beyerdynamic DT 990, with an MSRP of $313.95. It is also an open design. Materials include aluminum, plastic, foam, leather and cloth. It has a leather covered headband, aluminum arms that attaches to the plastic earcups. The ear cups are designed to fit over the ear, and are covered in a soft grey velvet cloth. The cable is high quality and features a gold plated tip. Fit and finish are excellent.

Features and specs include:

• Open back design

• Strong bass and treble

• Robust spring steel headband

• Single-sided cable

• Soft headband pad

• Gold-plated 1/8" mini stereo jack plug (3.5 mm) and 1/4" adapter (6.35 mm)

Transducer type . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Dynamic

Operating principle. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Open

Frequency response . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 - 35,000 Hz

Nominal impedance . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32 Ω / 250 Ω / 600 Ω

Nominal SPL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96 dB

T.H.D. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . < 0.2%

Power handling capacity. . . . . . . . . . 100 mW

Sound coupling to the ear . . . . . . . . Circumaural

Nominal headband pressure. . . . . . . 2.8 N

Cable length and type . . . . . . . . . . . 3 m / straight cable

Connection . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Gold-plated 1/8" mini stereo jack plug (3.5 mm) and 1/4" adapter (6.35 mm)

Weight without cable. . . . . . . . . . . . 290 g

Sound quality with the Beyerdynamic DT 990 was stellar. In Fresh Aire II- Going to Another Place, the strings were extremely crisp and clean. There was nice air in the flute. Bass extension was also nice, although just a smidge reserved. Resolution was very good. Gershwin- Rhapsody in Blue, had excellent texture and woodiness in the clarinet. Soundstage and imaging also came out amazingly. Pitch definition and low level harmincs in the bassoon was also great. With No Doubt- Hella Good, there was nice tight bass that was deep and had good authority. The sultry vocals came out loud and clear. This track has a lot of energy, and it was portraid very well. Huey Lewis and The News- Heart of Rock & Roll, showed a nice soundstage and imaging. I felt again like I was at the concert. Resolution was nice as well as the clean vocals. The sax solo was really clean and natural sounding. Kick drums came thru sounding tight with good pitch definition, and great extension. Metallica- Nothing Else Matters, the great harmonics really shone thru with the crisp and clean acoustic guitar and clear vocals. Bass extension was nice, and was just a tad less in authority. They were very musical sounding.

Like in March Madness, there is a lot made about the bracketing of teams, and where they deserve to be seeded. In the market, this is done by assigning price points to products. And like in march madness, there are the occasional surprises.

The companies represented today in the headphone shootout make excellent products, and have a reputation to do so. In the shootout, I heard what I expected to hear, and I also had some surprises. Starting from lowest to highest price points, I will start with the Aerial7 Tank Blizzard. I was impressed with the sound, quality, and what you got at this price point. So much so that it has earned our Value Award. The Ultrasone Zio has a great sound for a small compact design, and has earned our Recommended Award. The Sennheiser HD238i surprised me. It provided a very big sound for a small compact design, and was comfortable to wear. At $169.95, it is a great value, but it has earned our Highly Recommended Award. Next is the Ultrasone DJ1. It is a DJ headphone, but with audiophile sound. It has earned our Highly Recommended Award. The German Maestro GMP 8.35 D Monitor was another product that surprised me. It did not have the fancy look that audiophile headphones usually have to help attract consumers to the higher price tag. On the contrary, it looked more basic, but one that was built to take a beating. It also dished out it's own aural bliss. I should not have doubted it, based on it's roots, and it has earned our Editor's Choice Award. I have experience with Audio-Technica's great products, so the stellar sound of the ATH-A900 did not surprise me, which has earned our Editor's Choice Award as well. The Audio-Technica ATH-AD900 also had a great sound. It just was a tad lacking in low end output. If you like your base a little subdued, this could be a perfect product for you, and it has earned our Highly Recommended Award. Last but not least is the Beyerdynamic DT 990. It has a phenomenal sound. While it was just a tad lacking in the bass output, it had better than expected bass output for the open design. It has earned our Editor's Choice Award. One thing that also surprised me was that none of the models reviewed had detachable cables. All of these products deserve a look, if you are in the market for a pair of headphones. For more info and complete specs, check out their websites at: http://www.aerial7.com/, http://www.ultrasone.com/, http://www.sennheiserusa.com/, http://www.german-maestro.de/, http://www.audio-technica.com/, http://www.beyerdynamic.com/.