What are the best headphones to buy?
Beginning in October, 2016, I found myself on a headphone kick. The same gripping purchasing spell I fell under years back that resulted in a vast collection of guitars, banjos, and other string instruments. The following is only a portion of my audio experiences (I really did go on a bit of a holiday spree), arranged in a way that I felt was fairly comparable.
The criteria I used to make my purchasing selection, as well this review’s product line arrangement:
a) Relatively easy to drive – I didn’t want to deal with high power demanding headphones. Not to say that each the following headphones wouldn’t benefit from extra power amplification, especially the HE-400I, yet on the whole would still be energy efficient enough on a headphone jack designed to meet a typical “low end market” 32 Ohm output demand.
b) I personally gravitate towards warmer sound signatures. Between my tinnitus and tonal preferences, and sharply crisp mid & high painfully grate on my hearing. Out of the following, the HE-400I is the most notable exception (again), yet I had promised myself I would still buy a pair if the normal $450 USD dropped. A Black Friday sale came around, and I couldn’t resist.
c) Extended, open soundstage. After 1000s of hours spent in front of a US Navy radio stack, along with a lifetime of casual closed-back listening, I yearned for a more spacious soundscape. My first pair of open-back headphones was a pair of $100 USD rosewood cans from 2015. Also personally significant, I suffered a particularly nasty tinnitus attack in late 2016. I decided a more open sound may possibly help preventing (or at least, not exacerbate) future attacks.
d) Good reviews concerning desired audio characteristics. I am not only a regular reviewer myself, but also a regular reader of reviews, just like any other online consumer.
Finally, two overarching procedural notes:
- I do have a skeptical view of “recommended burn-in periods”, which I go into a bit more length later on. Nevertheless, I did give each pair their full runs before finalizing my critical listening observations.
- I largely used the Hifiman SuperMini PMP with its balanced output for my critical listening with a vast range of music genres and resolution (24bit FLAC to typical MP3). I also check via my Samsung Galaxy S6 with and without a separate software DAC w/ pre-amp, a good performing budget MP3 player with the usual 16 Ohm output, my PC through the standard AUX and through a simple USB-to-AUX adaptor, and my Amazon Fire Table, which happens to have very anemic wired output. I then take the gestalt whole as my overall impression.
You may wonder at the last, “Why no so-in-so DAC/Amp combo?” Well, beyond my SuperMini providing a exceptionally satisfying DAC & output for many headphones, I always found it slightly irritating reading audiophile reviews that seem to hinge on a specific combination. The quest for the perfect external DAC or amplifier can be equally subjective as seeking the Holy Grail of headphone sound. I rather go with the lowest common denominator accessible to casual listeners seeking an entry point… because the audiophile is going to tweak, invest, and argue the minute details anyways.
Hifiman HE-400I & Hifiman HE-400S
The reason the HE-400I & HE-400S are combined is a very simple one – they are identical in so many ways that the only decision points are between their actual differences. All the more so if you decide on the HE-400S, then purchase the Hifiman FocusPad (Standard or the “A” variant) to replace the stock all-velour earpads.
Both offer a light, vast, airy soundscapes, the most spacious out of my lineup. Both are generally finely articulate with a closely linear flat spectrum. Both are rather subdued with perceptual low frequency presentation – the 400S more so with the stock velour earpads since bass lacks the containment push that the FocusPad (stock on the 400I) provides.
What the pivotal point really boils down to, packaging & pricing aside, is what kind of arching tone quality do you prefer? The 400S has a warmer veil compared to the 400I’s coolly analytical separation.
The warm vs cool is only by manner of relative degrees to each other, yet still perceptible even after full burn-in periods. The 400S has a slight tonal edge diffusion under that warmer cast, whereas the 400I maintains distinctly crisp tonal separation. I went through a large number of A/B tracks spanning the music genres, but the one I ended up focusing on the most was Rogier’s Polychoral Works (24bit/88.2KHz Hi Res FLAC) as exemplifying the difference. Even during the choral crescendos with various brass timbres, I can still distinctly pick out each element and positioning, right down to the natural vocal sibilants (neither set has any artificially induced sibilance). Thus the whole “analytical” reference that gets tossed about a lot by others.
With the 400S, the brass tends to merge with the male vocals, and those vocal sibilants are far more demure. Naturally, the 400S is less prone to fatigue the ear when presented with a predominance of soaring mids and highs. About an hour of listening to those choral works on the 400I, and I was done. The powerful Magnificat sopranos were too much on the 400I.
So in terms of my own audio preferences, I find the 400S the better of the two when it comes to general music listening. I will go one further, giving the 400S my highest recommendation to fellow tinnitus sufferers, far above any other set in my audio herd. Only fly in the ointment, without the additional expenditure for the FocusPad, the quickly diffused low frequency presence by the all-velour pads may leave you unsatisfied.
A big “however”, however, for the 400I. I have found the 400I to be fabulous TV headphones, especially after adding a Topping NX3 headphone amplifier. The amp adds a slight warm veil over the spectrum, softening the peaks without sacrificing the distinct mid range clarity, as well as having a bass boost setting that plumps up explosions and the like. Even with bass boost on, I can actually hear dialogue over badly mixed thematic backing, far more so than my living room stereo system and its “AccuVoice” boost setting.
So in the end, I am very happy with both.
I waited until after the long burn-in period of 150+ hours before finally sitting down to this review. Although I tend to take a jaundiced view of extended burn-in periods when it comes to the whole “relaxing the driver” concept, I do feel wood housed headphones benefit from it, taking a leaf from my experience with wood body guitars. Takes time and constant vibrational agitation to open up a wood’s ultimate tonal quality, and no reason headphone housing wouldn’t be the same. Plus, in spite of my firm belief most perceived “changes” are subjectively getting used to a sound, I grant some minor objective truth to the initial manufactured construction rigidness gaining flexibility.
In the case of the Nighthawk, I will chalk the changes up to the wood housing. And, yes, concrete, significant objective changes do occur. From the outset, the very dark and swallowed impression indeed brightens up as time passes. Once again in my opinion, not from the drivers relaxing per se, but from the hybrid wood composition loosing its manufactured density. Mid vocals lighten up and upper mids move more perceptually forward with soundstage clarity and fullness, such as hi-hats and headless tambourines, from the initial heavily muffled state. Highs come out to play wearing a soft yet sparkly airiness. However, the Nighthawk is unequivocally a mellow sound, even after 150+ hours burn-in… but it does lose that strangely skewed out-of-the-box darkness over time.
From the moment to my first listen to now, the persistent characterization I continuously have had with the Audioquest Nighthawk is “a retro box-speaker experience”. Ever walk by a set of old 80s tower speakers blasting at the flea market, and stopped to marvel at the rich dynamic sound from something so antiquated? You aren’t analyzing the sound, just listening for entertainment’s sake. That pretty much sums up my own admittedly waffling feeling about the Nighthawks. As long as I don’t *think* about the sound, I dig them. Especially for Classic Rock – a thoroughly wonderful nostalgic blast, hands-down my #1 choice out of my collection when starting up The Beatles, Steppenwolf, Pink Floyd, and so on.
But when I find myself consciously listening, a little analytical voice in my head begins muttering, “Where’s the clean, transparent clarity?” Frankly, doing active A & B comparisons between the Nighthawks and other owned open-back headphones makes the little voice grumble all the more. All my other sets have smoothly brighter mids & highs, including a pair of $100 open-back rosewood cans that I would certainly also categorize as mellow.
Then I squelch the A/B thinking, shut the voice down, turn up The Doors, and I am all happy again with the Nighthawk. Particularly when it comes to the Nighthawk’s beautifully plump yet natural presence of bass guitars and the like – neither the HE-400S & 400I sets remotely comes close.
For purely entertainment’s sake listening with zero ear fatigue and supreme comfort, the Nighthawk has it all in spades. Well, as long as you are absolutely willing to give them the time needed to come into their own. And, of course, already quite the fan of the mellow box-speaker aural experience.
For anyone else, however, may want to objectively breakdown what kind of sound you enjoy most before purchasing… which probably means you too have the little muttering A/B analytical voice already present when any pair of cans are on your head. That exasperating little voice may be a fly in the ointment.
Meze 99 Classics
So why suddenly the closed-back Meze 99 Classics in a “open-back” line up? Primarily a purported extended soundstage often claimed by others being on par with most closed-back sets, but also the easy-to-drive 32 Ohms, and general price point fit.
From the outset to now, my sweeping impression of everything about the 99 Classics, including the soundstage’s depth and breadth, has been “an intimate helmet of sound”. The keyword here is “intimate”. Yes, the 99 Classics indeed has a deeper and wider aural sense than most closed-backs. Completing the circle, a majestic vertical sound presentation that conjures the analogy of an Imax theater versus the in-home widescreen TV spatial imaging of the SymphoniQ’s hybrid open-back construction approach.
Yet, in the end, still quite contained and personal compared to a fully opened sound. Compounded into this “intimate helmet of sound” is the 99 Classic’s sound signature. Prepare for an energetic, almost in-your-face spectrum.
Strong bass thrust accompanied with a robust sub-bass definition. Not at eyeball throbbing levels, but close. May still be a very pleasing basshead choice due to the excellent tonal separation of the lows, even amongst a complex arrangement of different drums, bass guitars, synth beats, and so on.
However, unlike so many other bass heavy cans, the mid range isn’t perceptually left behind. Quite the opposite. The mids, especially the mid-vocal range, are closely matched, albeit the low frequencies still hold the dominate role. In fact, for listeners tired of having singers masked by heavy bass lines, or simply sitting backstage behind a wall of instrumentation, the 99 Classics have my absolute recommendation.
Upper mids & highs come through as softened yet with sparkly detail. Hi-hats and headless tambourines are easily heard, and synths soar without a piercing edge… after a 40+ hour burn-in.
Out-of-the-box, the 99 Classics had a saw-like edge to the upper ranges, and frankly sounded messy with complex polychoral works involving powerful sopranos. Rather harsh, really. After about 40 hours, however, coming back to those same recordings, the raggedness tightened up into a non-fatiguing sweetness. I do think this is at least partially due to the walnut’s inherent tonewood quality coming out, but without having the brighter maple tonewood variant to compare, can’t say for sure.
Very good detailing – no where as brightly analytical as cans like the Hifiman HE-400I, but with enough tonal sensitivity to show up recording flubs like a drum solo being far too close to a swinging mic stand, causing resonant feedback. Conversely, warmer sets such as the Audioquest Nighthawks smooth right past that slight buzz.
All these attributes come together to compose a very personal audio experience, whereas traditional open-backs create vaster perceptual distances. So if an “intimate helmet of sound” tickles your fancy, Meze has a winner with the 99 Classics. A extraordinarily well built, swag looking winner.
— Other Notes on the Meze 99 Classics:
1) Head grip is a bit on the tight side (for head sizing reference, my hat size is 7 ~ 7 1/8), but not in a discomforting way over multiple hours.
2) Over ear spacing is on the small side. Unlike the thoroughly circumaural fit of the Hifiman and Audioquest, the Meze 99 Classics don’t quite entirely go around my ears.
3) Love the included cord selection, more so than any other headset I have purchased in the past few months. A shorter straight-jack with inline control w/ MIC perfect for player/smartphone use, and a much, much longer (not sure if balanced or normal) one for home use. The heavily braided Hifiman L-jack cords were too bulky to use with a PMP in my pocket, and Audioquest’s cords were both extra long.
4) Out of all my recent purchases, only the SymphoniQ and the 99 Classics came with a real carry case.
5) All my critical listening assessments were done via the SuperMini PMP’s DAC and balanced output port (4.2V peak to peak).