Closed-back headphones: a great overview from Marco Arment

Original author: Marco Arment
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Today we decided to present to our readers the translation of a large review of portable headphones prepared by Marco Arment - the person who created Tumblr and Instapaper, and who is currently actively working on the topic of podcasts - both as a co-host (Marco leads the Accidential Tech Podcast show ) and as the creator Mobile application for listening to Overcast podcasts . Marco, as a music lover, an IT geek and a person professionally associated with sound recording, tried to carefully understand the quality of all the headphones that fell into his review - his opinion, of course, is subjective, but no less interesting from this.

The market situation for the mass production of headphones has changed significantly in recent years due to two important factors:
  • Portable use is now the main factor when choosing headphones for many: it is difficult to justify the existence of a good pair of headphones that does not work well in conjunction with a smartphone.
  • The Beats did with the headphones what Starbucks did with coffee: albeit they are not the best, but this is a serious step forward compared to what most people used before: thanks to them, the demand for headphones has grown significantly, and the idea of spend $ 200-400 on headphones and wear them in public.

For years, geeks like me have recommended people buy inexpensive studio monitor headphones like Sennheiser HD-280 PRO, ATH-M50 and Sony MDR7506 to listen to music on a computer. They provide good insulation, acceptable sound and comfort for a long time and cost no more than $ 100, but are not practical for portable use: they are large, hardly fold and usually have long twisted cords, which, at best, are difficult to control away from a computer.

Fortunately, the portable headphone category, priced at around $ 200 or more, has grown over the past few years with striking improvements in comfort and sound quality, far surpassing older studio monitors. The recommendations described above could be considered excellent for many years, and they still deserve attention, but can no longer be considered perfectly suitable for everyone.

When compiling the review, I was guided by the consideration that anyone who is looking for good headphones today probably wants to get:
  • Semi-portable full-size headphones - not pocket-sized, such that can easily fit in a small bag, are suitable for listening to music on a computer and on the plane or, possibly, for use outdoors.
  • Closed-back headphones with at least moderate isolation.
  • Straight short cable with three-button remote control.

The maximum price is $ 400, but ideally it should be less than $ 300.

Headphones that are not included in the review

  • Headphones are open-type, since they cannot be recommended without having made a bulk refinement [1], and also because they are usually not very portable.
  • Headsets and in-ear headphones (IEM), because I can’t wear them without pain and for the same reason I can’t adequately evaluate them [2], with the exception of Apple EarPods as a reference to sound quality.
  • Most models of overhead headphones, because their sound and level of convenience, are usually frankly low.
  • Wireless models, since they have a different purpose, are bored by constant recharging and have not historically taken root.
  • All that requires a separate amplifier.
  • Some rare, highly professional models that I could not personally test and did not want to risk and buy them myself due to lack of information, too few positive reviews or too many reports of serious defects. This group includes: Focal Spirit One / Classic, Phonon SMB-02, Martin Logan MIKROS 90, Aedle VK-1, and Master & Dynamic MH30 / MH40.


I bought or borrowed most of the headphones in this review and spent a considerable time with them at home. I tried several other headphones in Apple stores, connecting each pair to my iPhone, playing the same test tracks that I used at home, spending at least 10 minutes on each copy, recording and sketching the approximate frequency response and comparing them in order with the nearest models and my AKG K545, with which I came to every store.

I tested every headphone with my iPhone as a source. I also tested the models tested at home using a large desktop setup: three headphone amplifiers (Asgard 2, UCA202, Icon-2), simultaneously connected to the Gungnir DAC DAC. I did not find any noticeable differences between the amplifiers and the DAC for headphones in this review, but they provided the ability to easily connect three headphones at the same time to compare headphones in pairs [3].

I listened to what you probably call terrible musicbut it is well recorded, covers a wide range of tones and types of recordings, and I know its details incredibly well. After that I let my wife listen to the same headphones without telling me my opinion, and she came to almost the same conclusions as I did, so I know that either I am adequate or we are both crazy.

So, without further ado, let's move on to my classification, followed by concise reviews for each model:

Sound Quality Classification

Many people prefer a warm, calm tone that lacks the mid frequencies, most high frequencies and the quality detail that good high frequencies provide. Such preferences allow you to avoid the vibrations that unfiltered mid and high frequencies can bring to music on inexpensive headphones, so a “warm and calm” sound is less tiring for a long time listening. But this is the same as adding milk to coffee: the loss of strong vocals and frequency detail makes good recordings more meager and unforgettable.

In contrast to the first group, there are those who are interested in good audibility of all details, “sound purity” and a sense of lightness, which ensures high-quality sound in the upper register, as well as more powerful reproduction of vocal parts, which provides the middle register. I like the sound quality in uppercase - this is what makes people say: “Wow! The sound is so clean! ”The disadvantage of such musical preferences is that it is difficult to achieve such a sound without vibration and rattling.

If you prefer a quiet sound, most likely you need a NAD VISO HP50 or PSB M4U 1, as these are the best examples suitable for this kind of preference. If you like enhanced detail, perhaps you should pay attention to the AKG K551.

My rating from the best to the worst headphones:

AKG K551: A little booming bass, a little “sink” midrange, on the other hand: rich high frequencies, clear detailed sound without the sound of bounce or vibration. Almost as good as open-type headphones with a good mid-range - I did not think that this is possible in the closed-end class of headphones for up to $ 1000, not to mention the real cost of this model.

NAD VISO HP50:Slightly booming bass, smooth mid frequencies, in some places weak tops and mediocre detail. This is the best implementation of the smooth, calm sound that I have heard, providing ease of listening without much loss in detail than many other models cannot boast. This is a very acceptable sound, as if the creators of the headphones sought to find the perfect compromise: such a sound does not annoy anyone, but you will not get amazing impressions.

AKG K545: Very similar to the K551 with a more controlled bass, but with occasional light vibrations in the upper mid-range and slightly less clean upper tones.

PSB M4U 1:Almost identical to the HP50 with the same weak tops and mediocre detailing, and at the same time with less pure midtones and a slightly more booming and dirty bass. Nevertheless, they are very good for listening to undemanding calm music, although they are slightly inferior to the HP50.

B&O H6: Weak bass, uneven mid-range sound, but very good sound for those who appreciate high frequencies. In this case, an amplifier is practically necessary - without it, at high volume, the bass becomes even weaker.

B&W P7 : A bit booming bass, rough mid frequencies, lacking high tones and detail. They produce a fairly calm sound, but not as good as the HP50 and M4U 1.

Beats Studio:The bass is a bit overpriced in the midrange, but the sound and detail are surprisingly good. However, the active noise canceling circuit creates a constant, annoying low whistle, while noise canceling cannot be turned off, and the headphones do not work passively. Worse, active noise cancellation is not of high quality and does not introduce noticeable differences compared to passive sound insulation in my test. A version without active noise reduction would get into the rating a couple of positions higher and would probably be worth the money.

V-Moda XS: Too strong bass and weak “highs” - such qualities are good for over-ear headphones, but they won’t be able to compete with full-size ones.

B&W P5 :Slightly booming bass, uneven sound in the mid-frequency range, the sound in the upper range is boring, the detail is weak - normal for open headphones, but not a competitor for full-size ones.

Sennheiser Momentum : Too strong, a little booming bass and not enough nuances and detail in the high frequency range. An attempt to create a moderate sound that completely loses to the HP50 and M4U 1.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro : Slightly uneven mids, noticeably lacking nuances in the high-frequency range, sound detail is inferior to more modern devices. These inexpensive studio monitor headphones were not included in the review (do not meet the requirements) and are included in the rating for comparison. According to the test results, 280 Pro turned out to be a little worse.

Blue Mo-Fi:Good bass and midrange, but the nuances in the high-frequency range and detail are so lacking that the headphones sound muffled and incomplete. This is another attempt to create a moderate sound, which was circumvented not only by the HP50 and M4U 1, but also by Momentum (in terms of quality of detail). I found in them a built-in amplifier that does not affect the sound quality - only the volume.

Bose QC25:Unlike most active noise canceling headphones, the QC25 can work in passive mode. With active suppression turned off, the booming bass dominates, as in the old Beats, the mid frequencies are greatly cut and the detail in the high frequency range is very lacking, as if you were listening through the pillow. When the noise reduction is turned on, the equalizer works, which noticeably enhances the midrange and treble, but does it too actively - the midrange, for example, sounds very rude. Although active noise reduction is excellent in itself.

Beyerdynamic T51i : Only one bass is heard with a lack of detail in the upper range - these are Beyerdynamic's well known. These are simply on-ear headphones, but they cannot withstand competition even among other on-ear headphones.

Apple EarPods: Bass and treble are not heard, uneven sound in the midrange, no detail. Included for comparison.

Beats Pro: Incredibly booming, fuzzy bass, so powerful that you can hardly hear uneven mids or quite decent detail in the high frequency range.

Sony MDR-1R: “Raw”, weak bass, coarse mid-range frequencies - just like a phone’s, it lacks high frequencies, and there is practically no detail of these sounds. For headphones that cost more than $ 50 and have no obvious defects, this is the worst sound I've ever heard.

Convenience classification

From best to worst:

AKG K551: Incredibly comfortable, with light pressure distributed over the wide surface of the ear pads. Only one “but”: these large ear pads become wet with sweat faster than other headphones because they cover a large area.

Sony MDR-1R: Very comfortable, mainly because of their extremely light weight and very soft ear cushions.

B&O H6: Very light with excellent ear pads.

PSB M4U 1: Medium size and weight, but well adjustable thanks to excellent ear cushions.

AKG K545: Lightweight, but the ear cushions could be a little bigger and softer. Something between the ear cushions of the K545 and K551 would be the perfect compromise between comfort and moisture due to fogging.

Bose QC25:Ordinary, light and soft ear pads from Bose, but they press a little stronger than the previous options from the list. The rims of the ear pads could be slightly wider to distribute the pressure over a larger area.

NAD VISO HP50: Similar to the M4U 1, but they are noticeably stronger, slightly stiffer ear pads and the most uncomfortable headband.

B&W P7 : Not bad, but a little heavy and tight.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro : Tight, put too much pressure on the head.

Beats Studio: Too tight and ear cushions too small.

B&W P5 : On-ear headphones - this limits their longevity, they are a bit heavier than most on-ear headphones and stick to my ears.

V-Moda XS:Headphones, although overhead, but very heavy, while all the weight is concentrated on the thin rims of the ear pads.

Blue Mo-Fi: They put a lot of pressure on the head, mainly due to the fact that the headphones are very heavy - their weight is 482g. - almost the same weight isodynamic headphones [4]. True, this model does not have a weight distribution technology like the one used by Audeze and HiFiMAN to make their headphones more or less comfortable. Significant pressure falls in the middle of the upper lining of the headband. The sophisticated headband is well regulated, includes compression adjustment knobs, but I could not find the settings that would be comfortable for me.

Beats Pro: Tight and small ear pads in the style of Beats Studio, but much heavier than Beats (400g.).

Beyerdynamic T51i:Overhead type headphones, but incredibly heavy and tight. Nothing to do with the larger Beyerdynamic models.

Apple EarPods : Maybe it's in my ears? But note, judging by the position in the rating, these headphones are not the worst ...

Sennheiser Momentum: Too tight and with very small ear pads for full-size headphones. The cups fit with uneven pressure, almost crashing into my head at some points. Extremely uncomfortable headphones - this feeling is even worse than the sound of the MDR-1R.

Finally my favorites

From the best to the worst. The prices are taken from the pages of official Amazon suppliers and are current at the time of writing:

AKG K551 ($ 200): Amazing comfort and sound, very similar to open-type headphones, although this is an inexpensive portable copy. They are quite large, and there is nothing special in their appearance, but I have not heard anything as good for the money. I spent a lot of time choosing between them and K545, leaning toward one or the other, it is unfortunate that their ear pads become wet with sweat faster than when using other headphones, and they don’t have a removable cable, but their level of convenience is high became decisive for me.

AKG K545 ($ 250):Headphones, excellent in all respects, the successors to the K551. They do not have the big disadvantages of K551: they are smaller and more attractive in appearance, with interchangeable cables, with more moderate bass and much less susceptible to sweat. They do not cause inconvenience, in any case, but for convenience they are incomparable with K551, which is a pity, otherwise they would be almost ideal.

PSB M4U 1 ($ 300): It is known that It was the choice of The Wirecutter, but they are far from universal: it is a great option for lovers of moderate sound, but if you like clear and detailed sound, the sound will seem “flat” and boring. In addition, they hardly got into this review, because they have a terrible controller with only one button, but their cable can at least be replaced.

NAD VISO HP50 ($ 300):Paul Barton developed the PSB-M4U 1, after which he made the NAD HP50, a kind of successor to the PSB-M4U 1, but it turned out to be version 1.1 rather than 2.0. They are much better both in theory and in practice, with interchangeable cables and a socket on each side, however, a terrible 3-button remote control was added to the cable. Compared to the M4U, these headphones have cleaner graphics and sound, and the NAD HP50 delivers the highest quality mild sound I've ever heard. But for convenience they are still inferior to M4U, so I think that M4U is better, though not by much.

B&O H6 ($ 400): Very comfortable, incredibly stylish and practical headphones, but somewhat unusual sound does not match their price, so they were surpassed by more balanced alternatives.

Bose QC25 ($ 300):Bose's new flagship headphones don't sound very good, but their active noise cancellation is the best I've ever heard - better than the noise canceling in QC15, Parrot Zik and Beats Studio. They retained Bose's inherent great comfort, light weight and look less old-fashioned than most other Bose products - their design was cutting-edge in 1989-1999. If your main goal is to significantly reduce the level of external noise in an airplane or in a noisy office, I can recommend them, but the sound quality does not match their price.

B&W P7 ($ 400):Like all other $ 400 headphones from Apple stores, these are generally good, but not worth the money. Even if you like moderate sound, the M4U 1 will reproduce it better, with more comfort and for less than $ 100. (Of course, P7s are more attractive, but if I wanted to buy attractive headphones for $ 400, I would choose H6 - they sound better and sit much more comfortable). These headphones were tested only in Apple stores.

B&W P5 ($ 270): If you're looking for attractive, over-the-ear headphones that sound perfectly acceptable, then this is your ideal option. But at such a price and with such dimensions, they are seriously inferior to compact full-size headphones, which are more comfortable and sound much better.

Beats Studio 2 (2013) ($ 250):They are much better balanced and the sound is more detailed than I expected, but the hissing of the active noise reduction circuits and the inconvenient shape definitely do not suit me.

V-Moda XS ($ 200): Great sound for full-size headphones, but the headphones themselves are extremely uncomfortable. The most pleasant memory associated with them is a photograph of my furry dog, taken with headphones to demonstrate their real size.

The photo, however, will be useful for sizing only if you also have such a Blue Mo-Fi dog

($ 350):A strange and complex rim holds strange and complex headphones: they can work in passive mode, but at the same time they contain a built-in amplifier with two modes (normal and amplified bass), which significantly enhances the volume and works on a battery charged via USB.

This is an interesting, but absolutely useless addition: Mo-Fi and in the passive mode are sensitive enough to play sound much louder than the maximum volume of the iPhone, comfortable for me, and the amplifier does not provide noticeable improvements in sound quality. It just adds complexity and weight, and these are not the things that headphones need, since the extra weight and complexity of the rim make them incredibly uncomfortable and weird looking.

Compared to other headphones in this category, the Mo-Fi sound quality also leaves much to be desired, regardless of the mode in which the amplifier is located. Designed for moderate sound, they produce an incredibly muffled sound. These first Blue earbuds are quite an interesting experiment, although the company seems to have tried too hard to create something original, rather than focusing on product quality. Blue lent me Mo-Fi for a review.

Beats Pro ($ 360): They are good if you are not interested in convenience, and you just want to hear the bass and spend a few hundred dollars. Tested only in stores.

Sony MDR-1R ($ 175):When you put them on, they sit surprisingly well, but unfortunately, this is followed by a surprisingly bad sound. Perhaps they are my biggest disappointment in this review.

Beyerdynamic T51i ($ 270): I am a big fan of great sound and convenience from Beyerdynamic, and Beyerdynamic Tesla was an amazing discovery in the class of Hi-End headphones. T51i are the first Beyerdynamic headphones with a 3-button remote control (the company joined the game too late), so I had great hopes for them. Unfortunately, they sound awful, and very uncomfortable. I would never have believed that these were Beyerdynamic headphones if the company logo did not appear on the side of the gadget. I still hope for an updated T70p equipped with a remote control that will probably be much better, albeit much less portable.

Sennheiser Momentum ($ 250): They look great, but they sit and sound disgusting. For moderate sound, the M4U 1 and HP50 are much better, and the style doesn't matter much if the headphones cannot be worn for more than five minutes.

[1] If you want to get great sound quality for little money, take a closer look at open-type headphones (or, in other words, just open headphones). The open (but uncomfortable) Grado Prestige Series SR60s are arguably the best in their class, followed by the stunning Beyerdynamic DT 880 , which surpasses all members of this review in terms of convenience and sound quality. But open headphones are like nets: they allow external sounds to penetrate inside, and more importantly, they release music out. This will annoy others, so do not recklessly use open headphones in buses, trams, airplanes, crowded offices, that is, wherever there is someone else besides you. Completely irresponsiblerecommend such headphones without giving such a warning.

[2] No, I have not tried custom membranes made to fit my ear with the help of an audiologist. The exceptionally high cost of such devices does not justify the risk that, based on the experience of using all the other in-ear headphones, I will find such devices painful (I would not undertake a review of such headphones, even if they were made for me for free for advertising purposes - for that same reason). My ears are simply not compatible with the in-ear headphones.

[3] Amplifiers definitely change the feeling of listening to music in powerful headphones, such as, for example, huge open-type models or isodynamic headphones, but the difference is noticeable only when they are properly powered. You will hardly need something more sophisticated than Magni, unless you are crazy, like me, in love with the HiFiMan HE-6.

I am not completely sure that I can determine the differences in the operation of different DACs, with the possible exception of the differences in the minimum noise level. It seems to me that I can hear small changes in the sound, switching between the external DAC and the DAC built into my Mac, but I'm not sure.

[4] HiFiMan HE-560 is actually lighter than Mo-Fi.

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