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Top Headphones and Earphones of 2012

Audio reviewer Ed Selley gives us his choice of the best headphones and earphones of 2012

by Ed Selley Dec 29, 2012


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    Top Headphones and Earphones of 2012
    Many of you were no doubt hoping to unwrap a lovely new smartphone, tablet or personal audio player on Christmas day. The audio performance of many of these devices can be superb but the supplied headphones are less likely to blow you away.
    AVForums has tested more aftermarket headphones and earphones this year than ever before and here are some of the highlights of the year plus a few others that have passed through our hands.

    Headphones

    Beyerdynamic DT660.

    Winner of the inaugural AVForums headphone group test, the DT660’s managed to combine a large number of strengths into a sensible package. They are well built, comfortable and offer truly exceptional noise isolation. There are very few environments where the DT660 is going to let much noise in. This is good news because the sounds they produce are very likeable indeed. Detail retrieval is absolutely superb and they are neutral and accurate performers. Importantly, they are compact enough to make using them on the move a practical proposition. They aren’t the lightest pair of headphones going but the weight is distributed evenly and this makes them easy to wear for long periods. When you aren’t using them, they fold up into a relatively compact form as well. The pricing is competitive and if you're looking for a sensibly priced pair of headphones to do it all, this is a fine place to start.
    PSB M4U2.
    Of course, if you have a little more to spend, you could do worse than look at what is probably our most surprising product of 2012. PSB’s product history in the headphone category can be summed up pretty succinctly - these. It would have been simplicity itself to simply wonder off to a Hong Kong trade fair and brand the first pair of headphones they found but the approach PSB has taken is radically different. These headphones are the result of looking at pretty much all of the competition, working out what it good and what is not so good and bringing all of that that thinking into one design.

    The result is extraordinary. These are incredibly comfortable headphones to wear and use and little touches like a detachable cord that can be attached to either side are the sort of details that really appeal after some time using them. The build is excellent and the M4U2 folds down into an encouragingly small space as well - and needless to say PSB also supplies a rugged carrying case. Best of all is how they sound. In ordinary ‘passive’ mode, they are a natural, open and expressive sounding headphone which responds well to high quality files and flatters less immaculate material too. Switch on the active noise cancelling and the sophisticated microphones built into the earpad manage to do a fine job of removing outside noise without introducing any unnatural sense of noise suppression or unbalancing the inner ear. This is a seriously clever pair of headphones.
    Harmon Kardon BT.
    The Harmon Kardon BT is relatively unusual as Hi-Fi products go in that it is an example of really excellent industrial design that backs up the style with some real engineering substance. The BT is a sensational looking piece of equipment that manages to look impressively timeless. Some aspects of the design are retro, others absolutely contemporary. They have been combined in a way which is absolutely cohesive and really rather lovely. The materials used feel good and the BT is very well assembled.

    The BT is also extremely portable. Despite being reasonably large, the low profile on either side of the head means they are easy to wear out and about. The ‘BT’ refers to Bluetooth - the Harmon Kardon can be used as a conventional pair of headphones but you can also do away with the cord and connect wirelessly to your device for up to ten hours at a time. Sonically, the BT is a lively and engaging performer that usually manages to entertain. It isn’t quite so accomplished over Bluetooth as it is over a wired connection but it is a useful convenience feature and the icing on top of an already appealing cake.
    Audio Technica A500X.
    The Audio Technica lost out to the Beyerdynamic in the group test but shouldn’t be ignored. The reason for this is that the while the Beyerdynamic is an exceptional all rounder the Audio Technica isn’t really well suited to use on the move. If you are looking for a pair of headphones purely to use at home though, these are about as good as it gets for under £200. They are light and the clever floating ‘wing’ arrangement instead of the conventional headband is exceptionally comfortable.

    The performance is superb too. The Audio Technica has a fantastically lively and cohesive performance that brings out the best in most musical genres. The more effort you put into the source equipment, the better they get as well which should give them a bit of stretch as you upgrade your system. This is something of a bargain at the asking price and well worth checking out.
    Stax SR-009.
    Let’s imagine that you are spending Christmas day aboard your immense yacht and you have a sudden and pressing need to drown out the noise of the bevy of supermodels who have this habit of following you around. This is the pair of headphones for you. AVForums didn’t review the Stax but having spent an extraordinary afternoon with a pair earlier in the year, they warrant a mention if there are any plutocrats reading.

    Unlike the majority of headphones on sale, the Stax is an electrostatic design and is referred to as an ‘Ear Speaker.’ Each earpad contains a membrane that is held in an electrostatic field. Exerting a force on the membrane produces sound. Once you overcome the slightly unsettling feeling of having a few hundred volts in potential on either side of your head, you can settle back to one of the most outstandingly natural and startlingly real performances you’ll hear from a headphone. The speed that the Stax starts and stops makes anything with a conventional driver sound sluggish. The integration from top to bottom is seamless and they are good enough to make you think about giving up on conventional speakers. The bad news? The price of perfection is £3,695. Dear Santa...

    Earphones

    Musical Fidelity EB-50.
    Another new arrival in the headphone market, Musical Fidelity have been making headphone amps for many years so the move into building the earphones as well is not too surprising. The EB50 uses a single balanced armature in each enclosure in the classic in-ear monitor configuration but there are some unusual additions. They come with the largest choice of earbuds I’ve ever seen and if you can’t get them to fit, your ears are clearly a bit weird.

    Sonically, the EB-50 uses a large housing that seems to help them produce excellent bass for a single driver design. The overall tonal balance is in keeping with the Musical Fidelity electronics - fast, open and lively with the very slightest sense of top end lift that further helps the EB-50 sound entertaining. They are also incredibly sensitive and will go deafeningly loud on almost any headphone amplifier on the market. Throw in the impressive build and attractive appearance and the EB-50 is a fine buy at £150.
    Atomic Floyd Superdarts.
    Winner of the ‘strangest product name of the year’ award by a comfortable margin, the Atomic Floyd’s are an unusual design in that they combine balanced armature with a conventional pistonic driver for augmented bass response. This combination is then placed in the best built set of housings that I’ve ever seen. The Superdarts use a machined metal housing that is the easy equal of anything on sale at any price. The red cord is a bit sudden but this is still a very smart pair of earphones.

    They sound entertaining too. The driver combination gives them exceptional bass response for an earphone and very few earphones can produce the subsonic bass response that these can and the result is huge fun with certain genres of music. The armatures give impressive top end as well and combining these two very different driver designs has been done in an impressively seamless way. They are a little on the heavy side and the looks might be a bit sudden for some but if you want to rattle your skull in style, these take some beating.
    Grado GR8.
    Compared to the Atomic Floyd or Musical Fidelity, the GR8 comes with virtually no accessories (not even a carrying case) and they don’t look anything to get excited about. Despite this, they are twice the price of the Musical Fidelity and still £100 more than the Atomic Floyd. On paper this doesn’t look like a great start for the Grado but there is a reason for that high asking price. The GR8 uses a very rare moving armature type driver that is designed to offer the speed and articulation of a smaller balanced armature with the size (and hence bass response) of a conventional dynamic driver.

    The charms of the Grado take a little time to make themselves clear but they are there all right. The Grado has an exceptionally even handed frequency response from top to bottom. Listen to the GR8 for any length of time and everything else will sound uneven afterwards. There isn’t a genre of music that they can’t do justice to and they are also extremely comfortable in use. They aren’t cheap and not supplying a carrying case still seems unforgivably mean but after a few minutes of listening, you simply won’t care.
    Sound Magic E10.
    The E10 doesn’t sound as good as the other designs here but that misses the point slightly. This is a pair of earphones that you can pick up for about the price of a night in the pub and at that price they sound better than they have any right to. Furthermore, they are well built and comfortable to wear as well. If you are looking for a simple upgrade to the stock earbuds supplied with most devices, these are an absolute steal at the asking price.

    The main reason for my enthusiasm is that the E10 has a sonic balance that is radically different from most other affordable headphones in that they manage to produce impressive bass response without swamping the clear and detailed top end. They go impressively loud on a relatively low power output and the good isolation between them and the outside world is enough to make sure that they don’t need to be driven too hard. I’m spoilt for choice with expensive earphones but I’m still more than happy to listen to a pair of these.

    Accessory

    Furutech ADL Cruise Headphone amplifier.
    The Furutech has been mentioned in a number of AVForums reviews over the course of the year but hasn’t actually been reviewed itself. The quality of headphone amplifiers in laptops and computers varies from the excellent to the truly awful and if you are spending a great deal of time plugged into one, you could do a lot worse than look at an external amp and the Furutech is a fine example of the breed. Before you even listen to it, it is simply a very covetable thing. The chassis is a one piece carbon fibre section with demagnetised steel end caps. Short of adding guns or an exhaust pipe, it is about the manliest hifi accessory ever constructed.

    t sounds good too. The Furutech accepts a USB input at sampling rates of up to 96kHz and features a rechargeable Li-ion battery that means it can also be used on the move. Sonically it has the combination of horsepower and resolving power to really allow good quality headphones and earphones to show what they can do. There is a complete absence of background noise and the improvements in bass extension and soundstaging are extremely impressive. It isn’t cheap but it is very capable and very cool and you can’t say fairer than that.

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