Without further ado, we present the products that stood out this year
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8,012I’m not going to pretend for a second that the most important products of 2013 were anything other than the first wave of 4K and OLED TV’s.
As some of the dire fiscal reports coming out of the big electronic brands make clear however, these screens aren’t yet doing the business financially. For the category that has been bringing home the bacon - for some brands at least - are headphones. As a product group they have exploded in size over the last few years and unsurprisingly, the rush of companies trying to take advantage of this has been sizeable and, as a result, there's been no shortage of product to review.
Within this rush, we have seen considerable variety in the style and technology of the designs hitting the market. Like certain speakers, some headphones have gone all out in the application of technology while others have proved more conventional in their approach. Interestingly it isn’t merely a case that new companies have used new technology while more established ones have stuck with tried and tested methods - we’ve seen some radical thinking from well known companies and more traditional designs as a first effort from new arrivals. Earphones have also been a significant part of the growth in the category and although we have seen fewer in ear designs over the year, they are also an area where we have seen other new brands make their presence felt. Without further ado, we present the products that stood out this year.
To be completely clear on this, the Grado wasn’t new when I reviewed it in January and is even less new now. The SR60i is an evolution of the SR60 which has been around for nearly twenty years. Furthermore, the Grado looks even older than its basic design suggests. Some people will love the retro appearance while others will find it an instant turn off.
While it looks a little old hat, the Grado is the equivalent of the veteran sportsman who can still outplay and outperform the young whippersnappers trying to keep up despite their modern appearance and fancy bells and whistles. There are a few reasons for this. The Grado makes no concessions to being used on the move. It is a true open backed headphone that radiates a very conspicuous amount of noise in use and also won’t keep the outside world at bay. At the same time, you don’t get an inline remote, carrying case or any of the other niceties that some rivals are offering but if you judge headphones on factors other than the goody count the Grados show why they have been around so long.
Simply put, no other headphone - in fact I’m tempted to say no other single audio product - at the price is such an effortless demonstration of how good music can be. The Grado is detailed and accurate but balances this revealing performance with a musicality that is the way to enjoy pretty much any genre of music that takes your fancy. Furthermore, the Grado is sensitive enough to work with all but the most feeble headphone amps and forgiving enough to ensure you can still listen to compressed music on them. They aren’t perfect - bass response isn’t seismic, they are very much a home headphone than a rather more flexible hybrid and they can squash your ears a little after a long listening sessions but this is still a great headphone. At the moment, you can buy the Grado for £80 and there is honestly nothing I can think of for the money that will deliver as much musical satisfaction.
Focal Spirit Classic
2013 was the year of the hybrid headphone. These are headphones designed with a view to use on the move with mobile devices that can also turn their hand to being used at home as and when you need them to. We’ve seen some fine examples of this over the last twelve months but we also saw the hybrid design evolve further.
Focal has already entered the hybrid market with the Spirit One but with the larger Spirit Classic, they have taken the headphone to a new category. Focal has identified the ‘Nomad’, a group of people that move around between static locations - hotel rooms and long haul flights for example - who are looking for a headphone that is fairly easy to cart around but offers the performance of a home headphone.
Whether this category is the next big thing or if it only exists in the fevered brains of marketing execs is secondary to the Focal being an excellent headphone. The Classic is beautifully built, extremely comfortable and comes with a useful collection of accessories including separate detachable audio cables. The styling is clean and modern and the ‘hot chocolate’ finish sounds silly but looks excellent in the flesh - I’m not sure when brown became cool again but it is definitely cool at the moment.
It also sounds fantastic. The Focal is voiced like a home headphone in that no part of the frequency response is augmented for use on the move and as a result is a very smooth and well integrated performer that is not easily upset by any style of music. The bespoke drivers have excellent detail retrieval and manage to sound natural and believable and for a design that is effectively a closed back, the Classic manages to produce a big and believable sound. Also very importantly, the Focal sounds fun and lively when required.
There are some parts of the design that are usefully adapted from the portable side too. The Classic is light to wear and is also reasonably sensitive meaning that most devices won’t struggle to drive them. They aren’t perfect - for a design that is intended to be moved around, the carrying bag offers minimal protection and they won’t flatter heavily compressed music but this is still an excellent headphone that warrants inclusion on any shortlist.
Final Heaven IV
Although we saw a fair few pairs of in-ear type earphones this year (and barely scratched the surface of what was actually released), only one model makes the cut for the best of the year. Final is not a household brand name but neither is it one of the dozens of new companies set up to cash in on the headphone boom. For over forty years, they produced some of the most exotic Japanese high end hifi going - much of it kept exclusively for domestic consumption. Their decision to enter the earphone market (including price points far in advance of this one) comes with the promise that it might be more than a by the numbers exercise.
So it proves to be. The Heaven IV is beautifully finished and manages to feel solid and well built despite being small and lightweight. The brushed steel housings are attractive and the soft rubber domes are also comfortable and well finished. The party piece of the Final is the carry case. Over the years I’ve seen rubber pouches, leather bags and nylon zip boxes but Final eschews all of this for a truly lovely (if not amazingly practical) polished metal carry case that looks more like a cigarette tin than anything else. The result manages to feel worth the asking price. Internally, the use of balanced armatures puts the Finals above the dynamic driver models at lower price points.
What really sets the Heaven IV apart from other earphones tested this year is that it feels like a truly well-rounded performer that delivers above and beyond the price point. Like all armature designs, the quality and extension of the top end is truly exceptional. The Final can reproduce voices and instruments with a clarity and realism that leaves rival dynamic driver designs floundering in its wake. The soundstage is excellent and you can usually get a real sense of the scale of the piece even though the driver is so close to your ear. The Finals then really move ahead thanks to their excellent bass response which gets commendably close to a well sorted dynamic design and is also less dependent on a perfect seal between the eardrum and the outside world. As such, the Heaven IV manages to combine the positives of using moving armatures (you can add astonishing sensitivity to the ones I have already mentioned) without having any of their obvious drawbacks. It would be nice to have an inline remote for an iDevice and a greater choice of bungs but the Heaven IV is a little piece of Japanese high end at relatively sensible money and one of the very finest in-ear designs available for less than £200.
While Focal has been busy trying to evolve the hybrid design, some other manufacturers have waited a while to join the party. Sennheiser has been producing portable headphones for longer than many of its current rivals have existed but none of these has been a true lifestyle hybrid up until earlier this year. Although some of the model range are available in rather lively colours, it's also fair to say that Sennheiser styling has been business-like up until now.
The Momentum changed all that in an instant. Designed to be as happy being used on the move as they are in a domestic situation, the Sennheiser is a very well implemented hybrid indeed but what sets it apart from the bulk of the competition is the styling. This is unquestionably one of the best looking products of the year in any category for me and one of the most elegant blends of retro and modern styling that I have seen in a very long time and one of the most impressive aspects is that nothing is there for decoration - it all works. As Sennheiser have been making headphones for a very long time, a number of the design elements are class leading too. The hinged connecting jack, metal remote control and bombproof carry case all point to a company that knows how to make headphones practical to use.
They also know a trick or two about making a cracking sounding headphone too. The Momentum manages to combine a very neutral presentation with a sense of drive and liveliness that means that they are generally entertaining to listen to while giving a very honest appraisal of what the piece actually sounds like. They are impressively forgiving of compressed music, leak virtually no noise to the outside world and are impressively comfortable. Only a slight lack of sensitivity and a sense that the bass can be slightly unruly when listening to pieces with lots of bottom end count against them but the Momentum is still probably the most flexible and capable hybrid we’ve seen all year with only the Harman Kardon BT we tested in 2012 coming anywhere near them.
So there you have it. We have high hopes for 2014 (and 2013 might have one last surprise in store) but these are the designs that rocked our world this year. What are you looking forward to in the year to come?
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