Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Audio technica ATH-M50x - has to be one of best 'bang for the buck' headphones at its price point

     The ATH-M50, the predecessor to the ATH-M50x, was well known for being an extreme value at its price point, and the ATH-M50x solves some of the problems the M50 had, making it an even better value.

Pros: 3 detachable cables included with screw on 6.35mm adapter which works with 2 of the cables, improved sound quality over the M50, better comfort, robust and sturdy design, extremely foldable

Cons: clamping force may be a wee bit too great and headband padding a bit too thin for some people, slightly recessed mids
      The M50x came in a large, squarish cardboard box that is neither plain nor flaunting. A large picture of the headphones themselves is shown on the front of the box and the back shows the features of the headphones in a few languages. Upon opening the box, you will find another piece of cardboard containing the soft pouch and covering the M50x, and the M50x itself lying flat on what I think is recycled cardboard moulded to fit the headphones. The cables are hidden under the Audio Technica logo of the recycled cardboard, which is a very cleverly disguised container.
      The design of the M50x is one I always found attractive, in the understated, 'classic headphone design' kind of style. Some people may find it too plain for them, but for me, the design is just perfect, and the Audio Technica logo with its distinctive silver ring around it on each earcup adds a little flair to an otherwise plain design.

      Despite being made entirely out of plastic on the outside, the M50x is very sturdy. This is helped by the fact that the headband extenders are made of metal. The hinges do not creak or squeak and when folding or unfolding the headphones, there is a very reassuring feel of solidity.

     As for the cables, it comes with a 1.2m cable, a 3.0m cable and another 1.2m-3.0m coiled cable. All the cables connect to the headphones with a 2.5mm plug and a special locking mechanism that prevents the cables from being pulled out accidentally. The 3.0m and 1.2m-3.0m coiled cable both are able to use the screw on 6.35mm adapter, but the 1.2m cable cannot, as it is meant more for mobile use.
     To round up the package, u also get a soft drawstring pouch to keep your headphones in. I sometimes do wish for a hardcase with a pouch inside it to store the cables, and if u do want that, Slappa sells a lot of hardcases that fit the M50x on Amazon.

     I also find these very comfortable, though clamping force out of the box is unusually strong. After a few hours of usage though this gradually eased up and its noe a very comfortable fit. The earpads are quite soft and plush. Pressing them down and they yield easily, and upon releasing the spring back to their original shape. This sponginess helps the pads to adhere to the uneven surfaces around our ears and provide a consistent seal.

     Now, for the sound quality. I found the sound to be improved over the M50, though Audio Technica claims there is no difference between the two. Specifically, what has been improved is that the bass is now more well extended and tighter with less mid bass bloat, and the treble is also less piercing and sharp thanks to a reduced 10kHz treble peak. The mids, on their own, are pretty clean and even, but are slightly recessed compared to the bass and treble, so the M50x can sound a little hard and unnatural and vocals can sound a little withdrawn. The bass is tight and punchy and delivers each beat in tight, solid thumps. Cymbals, high-hats and other high frequency instruments like violins can get a little piercing at times but it is still ok. Separation is good across all ranges. This headphone also spaces pretty decently. Its not that great in a left-to-right perspective, but front-to-back is slightly better. Overall, its not the best, but its still decent. this is a very good sounding headphone for the price.

      I recommend this set of cans to anyone who has a budget around the price of the M50x, and who wants versatility, sturdiness, good sound and great value all in one package.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sony MDR-1RMK2 review - Luxury at a more affordable price, but more is still to be desired

     The Sony MDR-1RMK2 has been widely lauded for its looks, and is now about to be replaced by the new MDR-1A which comes in a version that includes a built in DAC. With the 1A coming out, the 1R has potential to be of a great value as prices drop to make way for the new 1A.
Pros: Nice looks, luxuriously padded earpads, decent sound quality

Cons: Rather expensive for sound it offers, as competitors offer better, especially for neutral-sound-seeking audiophiles

     Cnet seems to like the sound of this pair of cans, but I definitely think otherwise. However, let's touch on the other aspects of these headphones first.

     Looking at the pics of these pair of cans, the thick earpads are almost immediately noticed. When I got the opportunity to see these pair of cans for the first time and to try them on, I was impressed with their dedication to providing the best comfort to the listener. However, the baffle plate protecting the driver may irritate people whose ears stick out more by touching their ears as the earcups are rather shallow. However, for most, it should be a very comfortable experience.

     The silver portions of the headphones can be easily mistaken for metal, but in actual fact they are plastic painted a really shiny silver. The matte black back of the earcups are also plastic, much to my surprise. this took away a little from the overall premium of these headphones, but its nothing really, though a few people may be irked by the lack of truely premium touches/finishes. The sliders for the headband have a solid clicking and is useful for people with serious OCD and want both sides of the headband extended equally (Just like me).

     The accessories are pretty sparse. A soft carrying case (a hard one would have been appreciated for the price) and two cables, one with an inline mic/remote for smartphones and the other is just a plain audio cable.

     Now lets move on to the sound. I found the sound easily likeable, though not the most accurate. It did well being driven out of a mobile device, as is their primary purpose, to be a premium mobile headset. The warmth in the sound was immediately noticeable. This warmth was not overly infused with a blown up low end, so audiophiles should still find the sound tolerable, but for the average listener, the added emotion to their daily playlists will serve them well. Also, vocals had a very rich, warm, involving and textured feel to them. Subtle inflections in low to high female and male voices were all brought out with an ease not all headphones can achieve. Vibrato in the voices was also very easy to listen to. Adele, Christina Perri and William Pharrell all had their vocals pretty well reproduced.

     However, the vocals (and generally the higher mid range) was emphasised quite a bit, and the treble, which was quite articulate and detailed but not very much present (rolls off quite early), receded into the background even more. The result was an intimate sort of sound, not a bright and airy one. This can be good for mordern music, which does not require a large soundstage to sound good, but orchestral and instrumental pieces definitely suffered. Bass also was not well done, having a mid-bass hump and a rolled off sub-bass, leaving the bass sounding flabby, slow and without any real punch or weight down low. Overall, I would say the sound is decent, but lacks the overall quality to compete with top contenders at the exact same price, such as the PSB M4U1 and the Nad Viso HP50.

     The MDR-1RMK2 brings to the table great comfort, decent sound, and great looks, which should please most average listeners, but audiophiles packing serious gear like USB DACs or DAPs will want something better for their everyday commute, and will probably turn to the previously mentioned two headphones. All in all, nice job by Sony, but more could certainly be done. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Creative SBS A40 review - 2.0 desktop speakers on an extreme budget

These promise to offer a decent improvement over the poor quality inbuilt computer speakers. At a really low price of S$15, what remains to be seen is how much they deliver in terms of audio quality.
The creative SBS A40
The speaker packaging.

Pros: extremely cheap, decent detail, warm, mellow and non-invasive (not harsh) sound

Cons: heavy distortion even at moderate listening levels, some treble detail is hidden and bass is heavily lacking in definition or low end fullness. Bass port is mostly a gimmick.

Looking at these speakers, what immediately comes to mind is how plain these speakers look. They are completely black in colour with an equally black cloth stretched over the sturdy plastic speaker grill. The speakers are made out of hard plastics that do not feel particularly sturdy or rigid, but are pretty decent for the price. Nothing else to see here, let’s move on.

These are USB powered, so they can be conveniently connected to your computer’s USB port and powered right up. However, as these are USB powered, they lack the overall loudness and power of a speaker which is connected to its own power supply e.g. to a nearby wall socket. The volume control knob and on/off button are both located on top of the right speaker, with a green LED light (also on top of the right speaker) indicating whether the speaker is on or not.

Moving on to sound quality, these are actually not bad for the price. Music plays in decent quality, but with bass heavy music, the bass has a thudding quality to it due to the lack of bass extension, and it also lacks in fullnesss and richness. Some treble details disappeared completely due to the not that well extended treble. Mids are pretty decent, being played out a little warmly, and vocals are also quite lively.  When I listened to a few piano sonatas, the low notes became dull thuds and the higher notes had a tinkling quality similar to that of wind chimes. It is also quite obvious the grandiose presentation and wide dynamics of piano sonatas cannot be fully represented. Frequency response is stated as being from 100Hz-15kHz, so the lack of bass and treble extension can be easily explained.

Adding on to these speakers faults though, is that there is heavy distortion even at moderate listening levels. The bass port is also mostly a gimmick, as the bass is not extended through it. Covering the bass ports on both speakers with my hands and then removing my hands, I could only perceive a very slight widening of the sound but no added bass. I also taped cardboard to the back of the speakers so that I could listen to more songs at one go with the bass ports covered and upon uncovering the bass ports, The bass was also perceived to not be extended more when I played the same songs. There was only a slight widening of the sound.

At this price, I am nitpicking quite a bit, as they do improve on the poor fidelity of computer speakers. However, for the same price, you can pick up the extremely cute SonicGear Tatoo 101 2.0 desktop speakers which have much better bass extension and more realistic bass presentation, much more extended treble and a lot less distortion. In the end though, my opinion is that you spend a decent amount to get a better 2.0  or 2.1 desktop speaker system to satisfy you more. At S$59 is the Creative Inspire T10, a 2.0 desktop speaker system and at S$69 is the Creative Inspire T3300 which is a 2.1 desktop speaker system. Both of these will give you infinitely better audio enjoyment and I recommend you spend more for speakers around the prices of the T10 and T3300.

Don't they look so cute? These literally palm-sized SonicGear Tatoo 101 speakers can actually be found for less than S$10 and are the way to go if you are on a really tight budget and want something much better than the SBS A40.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

MDR-EX110LP - Sony, you can do better

     The MDR-EX110LP is a budget IEM with good fit, a nice compact bud design and comes with a cord winder. It comes in a variety of bright colours that fit well with the shiny chrome finish.

Pros: Compact, comfortable, should fit almost all ear sizes, good isolation and stays snugly in ear. Fairly well balanced sound.

Cons: Bass does not extend well, gets lost among other sounds, lots of sibilance, details lack crispness and a defining edge, even for a budget IEM,

The variety of colours this IEM comes in.
Close up view of the shiny earbuds with their unique design.

     These look quite good, I must say. The shiny finish of the earbuds are not overdone, it is toned down yet stands out, providing a good look. The SONY logo is written on the back of the earbuds at an angle and is quite conspicious, which may please some people. A healthy array of accessories such as a cord winder and different bud sizes round up the package, and all of this at just S$39.

     However, sound is another matter entirely. As these are IEMs, I will not focus too much on soundstage, but even then, the sound cannot compete with other budget IEMs. The bass is not overpowering, but actually lacks power to avoid getting drowned in the mix. It is often lost so easily. Mids and treble is tolerable at best, with details blurring out due to a lack of crispness and edge and there is also lots of sibilance. 
     The sound is a real turn-off, despite everything else being rather good. Also, if you care to top up another S$6, which I advise you to, you can get the MDR-EX220LP which is angled for an even better fit in the ear and most probably will provide better sound through the usage of 13.5mm drivers, unlike the 9mm drivers the MDR-EX110LP are using.

The MDR-EX220LP.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear review - A Basshead's Joy

     The Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear review is very nicely designed and has great sound, and come in red, green, ivory, black, brown, blue and pink shades, but in a very competitive price range, retaining at S$299, is it worth it? Let us get into it.

Pros: Greatly balanced mids and highs with rich detail, nice design, extremely enjoyable emphasised bass

Cons: Might not fit everyone's ears, slightly boomy bass

     These look so phenomenal, with all that alcantara leather and the premium stitching. The earcups are so nicely and subtly styled and to finish it all up, at the bottom of each side of the leather padded headband is a Momentum word laser engraved on a piece of metal to finish up that premium feel.

     The soumd is great, with detailed, smooth and balanced mids and highs. In the short listen I took, I did not hear any particular emphasis on any frequency range within the mids and highs. The bass is quite deliciously emphasised, with all the subtlety I need enough to betray the audiophile inside of me. Once in a while, I always like a fun sounding listen. In case you are thinking though, these are true, thouroughbred basshead cans with the refinement in overall sound and emphasised bass a true basshead will want. Alas, detracting from the overall experience is that the bass can get quite boomy, loose and flabby on occasion, especially when taxed with bass-heavy tracks. Also, the purist in me does cry out for a more neutral sound, as this is a pair of cans coming from Sennheiser.    
      Also, to ruin the package, the Earcups do not swivel back and forth, so people may find unecessary pressure on the back of their ears and too light a pressure on the front of the ears, causing an inconsistent seal and ruining the sound quality a little as outside noise leaks in. also, library use with these are not recommended due to the high sound leakage.

     This is a disappointing drawback, but overall, these are extremely nice sounding if you like balanced and detailed mids and highs and greatly emphasised bass. Even audiophiles out there, sometimes you should be a bit more adventurous with what headphones you listen to, like what I did. You may find a wholly different but maybe an even more enjoyable sound. Advice to potential buyers though; You should try these out if possible at a store before purchasing them, so as to ensure that they can fit on your ears well without putting too much pressure on the backs of your ears, especially if you are wearing glasses.

     Great job Sennheiser, especially on balancing the precarious value between sound and design, but maybe a slight tweak to include earcups being able to tilt on the slider with the Sennheiser logo will be greatly appreciated.

EDIT: This is a frequency response graph taken from Headroom of the Sennheiser Momentum On Ear.

Graph shows neatly emphasised bass from sub-bass all the way to mid-bass without any hint of bloatedness in the mid-bass and without any hint of poor sub-bass extension, as often seen in bass-emphasised cans. Mids are fairly smooth but slightly recessed, and the 10kHz peak may result in slightly fatigueing listens over time. Treble rolls off early and results in a relaxing listen but with lesser detail then I prefer. This graph delivers about the same sonic experience with the listening test I conducted.

Sennheiser PX 360 review - A traveller's go-to pair

     A great looking travel headphone, these headphones have a few cons some may not expect, coming from a pair of cans from Sennheiser.

Pros: good bass and mids, nice-looker, nice case, good portability

Cons: strange emphasis on particular frequency range, small cups may not fit everyone, fragile, non-detachable cable

PX 360

the PX 360 (above), and partially in its case (below).

     The Sennheiser PX 360 headphones look good, and are very comfortable, at least to me, but the earcups fit just nicely over my ears. Any smaller and I would not be able to fit these over my ears. What with these being advertised as circumaural headphones, the earcups should be bigger. the headband is nicely padded and the headphones are very light. The case and foldability makes these quite a good pair of travel headphones.

     I first auditioned these at the one and only Sennheiser shop in my country, Singapore. They looked as good as in the promotional pics and folded up very nicely upon testing of the folding mechanism. They have a metal reinforced headband I think, as the sliders are metal. Now, onto sound quality.

     These have very nice, smooth, controlled and tight bass. The mids are quite even and the overall frequency response is very nice and balanced in the mids. The bass is punchy enough for a clean, natural sound, but sometimes gets overwhelmed by the sharp and fatigueing highs. Still, these sound especially good with classical and instrumental music. Now, there is some bad news.

     The highs are smooth, but when I played Simple Plan's "Jet Lag", I noticed quite a strong emphasis on vocals, high-hats, cymbals, and any other sounds in this frequency range. The same is for other songs. Of course, vocals will be nice with slight emphasis, but the vocals are really too bright and fatigueing for me. I then tested the Sennheiser Momentum On Ear, and for $70 more, I get superbly even highs and mids, nicely naturally emphasised bass and great design, but at the expense of foldability, and it may not fit everyone, as the earcups do not swivel forward or backward slightly, so some people may experience uncomfortable pressure on the back of the ear.

     Overall, these are great headphones, but more work on the highs, and a detachable cable, would be greatly appreciated, especially in its price range.

EDIT: a frequency response graph of the PX 360 taken from Headroom.

Rather rough and frighteningly unrefined frequency response. Bass is not too well extended into the sub-bass region and rolls off early, mids are bumpy and high-mids to treble are very bumpy with lots of peaks and dips. Explains the emphasised cymbals, high-hats and vocals threatening to take over the sound. Treble also rolls off early. Very bad and rough sound for a headphone of this price, especially since the ATH-M50x are exactly S$1 cheaper than these. I will review the ATH-M50x soon. For those of you who know the ATH-M50, the ATH-M50x are its successor with 3 detachable cables and better sound quality over the previous ATH-M50.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

ATH-S300 review - budget winner? Not quite

     The ATH-S300 is a budget "street monitoring" headphone from Audio Technica. Audio Technica is one of the world's most foremost audio brands, so can they please with this paitpair of budget headphones for the daily commuter?

Pros: Good sound for money, folds flat, one side cable

Cons: quite bloated midbass, recessed mids, slightly recesd treble, looks like an inverted satellite dish on my d fatigueing presentation of sound.

The ATH-S300 come in 5 different colours

The packaging looks really good

     The ATH-S300 is very light weight and comfortable on my ears, with hardly    any clamping on my head. Now, you may suspect this leads to bad sound isolation, but the fine fit earpads provide extremely good noise isolation with really good comfort. However, if there was just a thin pad on the headband, comfort would be even better. The little surface area of the headband on top of your head creates a hot pressure point after a while.

     The design of these pair of headphones look really cool and may look bulky but they are actually quite compact and the earcups also swivel to fold flat for compact storage. I found a random drawstring pouch at home so I wastogether,  use it to sis, re my headphones in my bag.

     The sound quality did not sound really good when first out of the box, but they improved a little over just the next few minutes of usage. The mids and highs were brought and the bass also improved. However, the sound quality is still not impressive for the price, S$58,  as there are other competitiors such as  the Sony MDR-ZX300 which is retailing at S$55, which is better with a more neutral and even sound, better and crisper vocals and a less fatigueing and hard sound. The ATH-S300 has very recessed mids which is coupled with quite a bit of mid-bass bloat. While listening to classical music, the mids were so recessed it was quite terrible, especially during piano sonatas or orchestral pieces. Instrumental separation also was quite bad. Treble is also slightly metallic, listening to higher strings such as violins. These pair of headphones are meant more for listening to modern, bass-heavy songs. Slightly aggressive treble does lead to a fatigueing listen after a while. The treble is also, surprisingly, a bit recessed so some songs have a dull, dark sound. I am not too sure how aggresive treble and recessed treble can be produced. The 2 just do not seem to go together, yet here it is. For budget  cans with better, smoother overall sound and sweeter bass, you should go for cans from Sennheiser or Sony.

     Overall, I would say that these are the go to headphones if you are on a budget and want extreme bassy sound, comfort and noise isolation. These pair of headphones did well in all these aspects and even managed to surpass expectations of headphones at this price range, though they do lose to almost all the Sennheiser and Sony budget range.