The last time I reviewed headphones I limited myself to not going over $100. At that price I settled on the Grado SR 80e’s. They have an ultra smooth midrange with a very lively overall sound. But there were some drawbacks. Their top end could be a little fatiguing and their lower end did not go deep enough. See graph below:
I have enjoyed using the Grado’s but I have been looking for a better alternative. To do so I have had to raise my price limit to $200. Fortunately, there are numerous candidates in this price range.
I have finally settled on a set of headphones within my budget range. The phones I have purchased fall more into a monitor headphone category than an euphoric one. (My euphoric set of phones is the Koss Porta Pro. It is very smooth, light weight, and portable. Perfect for casual listening.)
Here is the frequency response of the phones I settled on:
Very nice response! Notice the extended bass and the smoother high frequencies. Of course, frequency response is not everything. This model is a planar magnetic one. It is quick, articulate, and very revealing. The top end is as lively as the Grado’s without as much listener fatigue.
Planar magnetic phones rival electrostatic ones for transparency and low distortion. (I have owned Koss and Stax electrostatic phones, but you cannot get very far away from the wall plug. Of course, they are a lot more expensive than my budget would allow. Planar magnetic ones make a nice close second.)
In each planar magnetic earpiece is a very thin, light membrane stretched between two magnetic grids. See photo below:
When the grids are magnetically charged the membrane vibrates between the two. Because the membrane has low mass it moves very quickly and produces excellent transient response. The sound is driven over a large area which maximizes low bass and reduces distortion. Moreover, the bass does not bleed into the midrange as on dynamic drivers on conventional headphones, which muddies up midband response.
What phones did I buy? Well, I cheated. I bought a pair of MassDrop phones – the MassDrop HE 4XX’s. Yes, they are pattered after the Hifiman HE 400i’s.
The Hifiman HE 400i’s are wonderful headphones, but they have been priced in the 300 and 400 dollar range. I bought my Massdrop phones for $169. But do my phones actually compare to the Hifiman standard version. I would say there is no compromise in sound. Their construction is solid and the ear cushions fit nicely. The headband is not as sophisticated as the standard version, but is is still very comfortable.
There are some drawbacks with my phones. They are not portable because they are very large, over the ear phones. They are not light weight compared to conventional phones, but for most planar magnetic phones they are light indeed. They do leak sound since they are open back headphones. All this is fine sense I did not buy them for their portability. The open back serves up a wide and deep soundstage. I use them for private listening at home, some distance away from others. It is a plus for me to be able to hear any alarms that might be going off.
These phones are more like monitor or studio phones. They tell you what is going on with the reproduced sound without the romantic overlay. They are more for critical listening than causal listening. They require a headphone amplifier to unlock their full potential, otherwise dynamic range will be limited. I use an AudioEngine D3 combined DAC and amplifier plugged into my MacBook Pro. Using the Audirvana Plus software, the sound is gorgeous.
But there is another drawback. These phones require an extended break-in period. Reviewing them right out of the box would be a big mistake. Over time. the top end smooths out and you begin to believe that you own a very expensive pair of electrostatic headphones with extended bass, The bass on these phones will reproduce the low C note of a pipe organ.
Buying on-line is often a risky business. I took a chance on Massdrop even though some of their products have had mixed reviews. What Massdrop does is lineup a fairly large number of customers in advance and then make a mass purchase from the manufacturer at a significant discount. Once the product is released they can be sold out in short order, depending upon how many items are made. As of now, the HE 4XX is sold out. It could be release again in the future.
I am sorry I did not alert anyone of this sale in advance. i had to give it a try first before i could recommend future Massdrop products. Based on my experience I would say that taking the risk is worth the price. Fortunately, recent price reductions have occurred on Hifiman products. The actual Hifiman HE-400i’s are now available for around $200, meeting my budget constraints. Even at this price the phones are a colossal bargain.