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Headphone Sessions 4/20/2011

At this week’s Headphone Session, we tested various on-ear sealed headphones from $29 to $89. The models discussed were the Skullcandy Uprock, MEElectronics HT-21, Beyerdynamic DTX300p and DT 235, Eskuche Control and 33 ⅓, and Audio-Technica ATH-FC700. Most of these models are brand new to us here at HeadRoom except for the DT 235, and the ATH-FC700 which was recently re-released by Audio-Technica. This was a somewhat difficult session for a bunch of headphone geeks. It feels a bit like working at a Ferrari dealership and testing a bunch of compact economy cars... our standards are very high! So, before we start discussing these fuel-efficient headphones, we need to be clear on this point: if you’re looking for “audiophile” sound in a headphone, either plan on spending more money or look away from a sealed ear-pad style headphone. These cans are not strictly designed for high fidelity, especially at this price point, but instead for functionality, portability, and ease of use. Due to the their smaller, sealing-earpad style, obtaining proper positioning on the ear can be a real challenge, and this in turn dramatically affects sound quality. This was demonstrated by our six official and nine un-official testers, whom all had different fit styles, comfort levels, and sound experiences. However, these durable headphones are ideal for on-the-go use, and you probably won’t mind leaving them in your gym locker, throwing them in a backpack, or picking them up out of the snow after a powder day spill. They also make great gift items, since they can be used in a variety of portable applications. [caption id="attachment_2014" align="alignright" width="118" caption="Skullcandy Uprock"] Skullcandy Uprock[/caption]

Skullcandy Uprock

Skullcandy’s new Uprock model is affordably priced ($29.99) and has solid bass, decent mids and veiled highs. This sound signature is geared for high-volume listening (not recommended for extended periods of time), but right up the alley of a skater, snowboarder, or skier who wears them on the outside of a beanie and wants to hear their music over wheels rumbling on pavement or edges scraping over packed snow. They also fit snug and stay in place, so you may not need to dig them out of the powder after that spill! We did have mixed reviews on the fit. Some found the “pillow style” earpad to be quite comfy and soft, achieving a good seal against the ear. Others found the snug fit to be too much and on the verge of uncomfortable. There was unanimous approval on the cool styling and excellent cord design. This flat, tangle-free cable should be on all headphones designed for active use! We couldn’t get it to tangle or knot, and we really tried. These headphones, in true Skullcandy form, are available in four colors and look great, whether on your head or around your neck!

MEElectronics HT-21

[caption id="attachment_2026" align="alignright" width="127" caption="Josh Heins wearing the 'BassBand'"] Josh Heins wearing the 'BassBand'[/caption]

These little cans ($39) brought in very mixed reviews. One thing is for certain, the mid-range has a very forward presentation, with bass and treble equally weak. If you’re a headphone listener that doesn’t like bass to kill the rest of the presentation, these might be the active cans for you. They might also be a good choice for the kids watching DVDs in the back seat, or podcasts & other low-fidelity voice recordings and web applications.

The semi-gloss black finish is quite unassuming, definitely not drawing attention like the colorful Uprocks. They share the fit characteristics of most lightweight, foldable portable cans; it’s difficult to get a seal against the ear, resulting in a thin, fairly bass-less response. We think all headphones this style should come with a work-out style headband that you put around the headphones to keep pressure and the seal against the ear! Call it the “BassBand” or “Head Gear”, as the whole get-up would probably look more like something you’d get from an orthodontist! [caption id="attachment_2013" align="alignright" width="137" caption="Beyerdynamic DTX-300p"] Beyerdynamic DTX-300p[/caption]

Beyerdynamic DTX300p

The DTX300p ($49.95) is another  lightweight, foldable portable headphone that is difficult to achieve a good seal with, and therefore has a fairly bassless, thin sound. That is, until you press against the earcups.....”BassBand” required! They do come across as having a slightly more balanced presentation, without the forward mids of the MEE’s, and they come in a couple of colors to best match your personality or wardrobe. Again, these headphones got mixed reviews, and being at a similar price-point as the MEE’s, no consensus on a favorite was determined.

Eskuche Control and 33 ⅓

The  strength of the Eskuche models (both $59) is their fashion, but even that came in with mixed reviews. The 33 ⅓’s  earcups are built to resemble a record, which most of us thought was fairly cool looking except, interestingly enough, the vinyl enthusiast in the group! Both models are a black finish with a sliding headband style similar to many AKG models, although somewhat less functional. The Control has a more rectangular shaped earcup, and definitely had the best fit ergonomics of the two models, but sounded akin to standing outside of a music venue while the band played inside. The 33 ⅓ has a circular vinyl style, and were difficult to get a proper fit on the ears.  However, once you did, they had good rich bass with natural sounding mids and highs that broke out of the “veiled” sound headphones at this price can often have. Both the Eskuche and Mee Models are still under evaluation, as we’re not too sure there is a place for them in HeadRoom’s line-up. [caption id="attachment_2012" align="alignright" width="111" caption="Audio-Technica ATH-FC700"] Audio-Technica ATH-FC700[/caption]

Audio-Technica ATH-FC700

Ahhhhdio-Technica! Thank you for making a reasonably priced (although at $69.99 the most expensive of the models discussed), reasonably good sounding and comfortable, good looking and fitting, sealed earpad headphone! The first thing you notice when you put these on is, even though they are lightweight and fold up like the DTX 300p and MEE, the earcups are slightly bigger and seal wonderfully against your ears. Because of this seal, the bass response didn’t need to be ramped up and you get a nicely balanced presentation not overtaken by bass or thin treble. These were voted the favorites of the category, but not by unanimous decision. The other strongest contender is the Beyerdynamic DT 235. [caption id="attachment_2011" align="alignright" width="117" caption="Beyerdynamic DT-235"] Beyerdynamic DT-235[/caption]

Beyerdynamic DT 235

The DT 235 ($59) is easily the sound quality winner in this price range.  They've got a full bass response that doesn't overpower the natural sounding mids, and the smooth highs lend themselves to hours of non-fatiguing listening. They aren’t exactly an “earpad” headphone as the velour earpads are doughnut-style and fit partially on and partially off the ear, but they do fall in the portable headphone category within this price range. They do not fold up, and are certainly not as fashion conscious as their little brother, the DTX300p, but they are better fitting and sound much better. Here again, we had differing opinions on the fit, which tend to be fairly clamping. This helps achieve a good seal, but on larger heads can become uncomfortable in a hurry. The fit should be fine for most people with small-to-normal size heads, but for those with larger heads or who wear eyeglasses, you may find the clamping force to be uncomfortable.

Other Contenders & Old Favorites

It turns out some of the models we’ve had here at HeadRoom for quite some time, the beyerdynamic DT 235 & audio-technica ATH-FC700, are indeed the best sounding in the category, while the newer models tested offer different aesthetics, ergonomics, and generally lower price points. [caption id="attachment_2010" align="alignright" width="163" caption="Sennheiser PX 200-II"] Sennheiser PX 200-II[/caption] Another option we like is the snug fitting, fairly bassy, yet nicely resolved and smooth sounding AKG K81DJ ($69). It has proven to be a very well built headphone, withstanding a documented three years of abuse by one of our salesman’s brothers; a true testament to it’s durability! Another very lightweight portable, like the DTX300p and MEE’s, but with slightly better resolution, is the Sennheiser PX 200-II ($89.95). However, same fit issues also apply -- BassBand once again required! The true sound contender from Sennheiser is the HD228 ($79.95), although they do not fold up and aren’t particularly flashy. For a small sealed earpad headphone, the 228’s are very nicely balanced across the frequency spectrum, with a smooth, even presentation Sennheiser is well-known for. For more direct comparisons or more information on any of the models discussed, or any other headphones, give HeadRoom a call at 800-828-8184. A headphone geek is standing by! In the meantime, keep it Right Between Your Ears!

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