Best Buy Headphones and Earphones
Excellence in portable audio is more affordable then ever before
2015 has been a slightly quieter period for portable audio but some excellent products have appeared over the course of the year.There really is no excuse to suffer through the supplied earphones of your phone or tablet and the amount of performance you can gain by a simple upgrade is huge. There are an awful lot of products to choose from though and unlike some categories where AVForums can review almost everything that is released, we have to be a little more selective about what is reviewed in a category. Without further ado, here are the stars of the year.
The SoundMAGIC is not the most beautiful pair of headphones we have seen over the course of the year but this small over ear design has a lot going for it. Usefully portable, the P30 folds down and comes with a good quality carry case. It is comfortable to wear and thanks to the use of conventional but well implemented technology, it is sensitive enough to be easy to drive on the end of most phones and tablets. The P30 is also supplied with different cables for use in home and mobile environments.
Where the P30 really shines is the sound quality. The SoundMAGIC is genuinely convincing with a wide variety of music and they have the ability to let you forget you are wearing headphones. This is unusual in closed back headphones and vanishingly rare at £70. Like its E10 stablemate, this is performance that is genuinely unusual at the price. Furthermore, the P30S doesn’t seem fazed by any genre of music I tried on it. There is very little under £100 that can live with the P30S. Those models that can are generally open backed home headphones that won’t be anything like as travel friendly as the SoundMAGIC. This is a budget champ that delivers far more than cheap thrills.
Many of the headphones we've seen over the last few years have gone long on exciting technology but often ignored simple comfort levels in the pursuit of supposed sonic fireworks. A little too often, we've had to insert the caveat that while a product sounds excellent, it can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods. This is not the case with the Audio Technica ATH-MSR7. Designed from the outset with comfort in mind, the result is a beautifully built and wonderfully comfortable pair of cans.
This would be completely irrelevant if the MSR7 didn't sound any good but it takes the Audio Technica brand attributes of sounding big and refined with enough excitement to ensure that you are kept enthralled. Part of this is down to the Audio Technica sounding fast and clean. There is little overhang or sluggishness and although the ATH-MSR7 is fractionally on the warm side of neutral it never feels soft or boomy. Everything is listenable and more than that, everything is enjoyable. This is a headphone that delivers performance, build quality and comfort in a very competitive package.
For a brand that had shown no interest at all in the headphone market until recently, Oppo has wasted no time in becoming a major player. Their use of planar magnetic drivers has been extremely interesting but with the PM-1 costing £1,100 and the pared back PM-2 only fractionally less, however good they are, they are going to be out of reach of most buyers. All that changed with the PM-3. At £350, this is one of the least expensive Planar designs out there and perhaps the only one designed from the outset to be portable enough and sufficiently compact to be used on the move.
This is a startlingly ambitious combination but Oppo has by and large pulled it off. The PM-3 is not quite as sensitive as conventional driver competition (one of the reasons why Oppo also developed the brilliant HA-2 headphone amp to partner it) but it is sufficiently easy to drive that you can use it on the move. The defining characteristics of the sound is that the PM-3 is extremely fast and can find immense amounts of detail in recordings. The low inertia of the drivers means that there is absolutely no overhang or sense of them changing direction and this makes the sound tremendously revealing and at the same time gives them a refinement that most rivals are going to struggle to match. If you are looking for a supremely talented home headphone that will stand up to a little use on the move, look no further.
The other Audio Technica product to pass through the review process this year was in some ways more surprising than the MSR7 headphone. The CKR10 earphone is the new company flagship and manages to do two very important things. The first is that it successfully helps Audio Technica compete in a very keenly contested market segment, the second is that it does this while being a bit less weird than Audio Technica Earphones of old. Sure, it still looks a little odd but, it is comfortable, well build and works well with plenty of different partnering equipment.
The key of course is that it sounds excellent too. The Audio Technica house sound manages to combine the accuracy of the company's studio heritage with a forgiving nature that allows you to listen to recordings that aren't perfect and still enjoy them. These qualities are alive and well in the CK10 and it manages to sound detailed and lively without sounding forward or aggressive. This also means that you can exploit the reasonable sensitivity of the Audio Technica to listen at impressively high volume levels if you want to. This is a clever and appealing earphone that is one that really needs to be checked out if you are looking at this price point especially if you are not considering external headphone amplifiers.
Noble K10U2015 was largely the year of affordable product in headphone and earphones but our one foray into the high end was very special indeed. We looked at the original Noble Kaiser 10 in 2014 This unassuming looking earphone packed no less than ten armature drivers a side into its design. Now, the design has undergone a revision to become the K10U. The drivers have been transplanted into a new- and utterly gorgeous- metal housing that manages to look and feel very special without compromising the functionality of the Noble day to day. Supplied with every ear fitting under the sun, the K10U is actually extremely comfortable.
They sound even more special than they look too. The K10U does one very important thing in common with its predecessor and that is that it never makes the technology inside the story. There are twenty drivers at work in these earphones but you only hear one beautifully spacious and entirely believable sound that has absolutely no sign of discernable crossover. The K10U simply doesn't behave like a normal earphone or even much like a headphone. If you can get comfortable wearing them- and Noble has ensured you should be able to- they simply disappear and you have the band inside your head with nothing so base as electronics being in the process of doing this. I'm not going to pretend that the K10U is anything other than a lot of money but it is in contention to be one of the best earphones ever made.
As we've noted in the past, there are strong arguments that if you spend more than an hour a day commuting by public transport, your portable audio will see more use than your home audio. With this in mind, why not ask Santa for a set of cracking cans this year to liven up your life.
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