A champion of affordable Hi-Fi steps into the headphone arena
IntroductionIn much the same way that we spend big chunks of AVForums podcasts talking about which superhero movie might be the one that bursts the bubble in Hollywood, I do from time to time wonder what might mark the end of the headphone boom we’ve been seeing over the last few years. The good news for new entrants is that - for the moment at least - the numbers all look healthy. The recent IFA show in Berlin saw new models hitting the market with plenty of interest in them and sales figures still seem to be strong.
The price points and sizes that are proving popular have been firming up of late and a category that has shown particular growth is the ‘hybrid’ over ear that is intended to work as well on the move when connected to a portable device but also be large and encompassing enough to work well as a home headphone. This type of headphone existed in relatively small numbers until perhaps five years ago but in the last year and a half I’ve tested models from PSB, Harman Kardon, Sennheiser and Onkyo. To excel in this category, a headphone needs to balance sensitivity and good isolation from the outside world with light weight and sensible overall dimensions that allow you to fold them away.
Now, another well-known brand is throwing their hat into the ring and like some of the other brands already present, they are doing so without any of the baggage of previous designs. NAD is still best thought of as a contender in sensibly priced electronics - the 3020 amplifier was perhaps the original piece of budget hi-fi and the company still has a strong portfolio in this area. They also deserve considerable recognition for innovation and their all digital amplifiers are astonishingly clever pieces of equipment. Models like the Sennheiser Momentum and the Harman Kardon BT have set the bar pretty high though - can NAD carve a niche in this tough category?
DesignOn receiving the HP50, I had an inescapable sense of deju vu and initially I couldn’t put my finger on why. The HP50 is NAD’s first headphone and doesn’t really share anything in common with the company’s other products. The reason for the familiarity is that the HP50 does have a blood relative, just not one that wears the same badge. NAD is now part of the same company that owns PSB speakers and the HP50 has borrowed from the research and development that went into the PSB M4U1 and M4U2 headphones. This is a very good thing. The PSB’s benefitted from extensive testing carried out by PSB’s founder and chief designer Paul Barton in conjunction with Canada’s National Research Council facilities. The result of this hard work is that the PSB’s mimic the performance of a loudspeaker in room and they are extremely enjoyable to listen to. Sharing this know how is certainly going to be NAD’s advantage.
The HP50 is built around a pair of 40mm drivers that NAD seems a little cagey about when it comes to disclosing the material they are constructed from. These are placed in an enclosure that makes use of the RoomFeel technology developed as part of the program with PSB and the NRC. This is where some of the feelings of déjà vu really begin. The NAD manages to isolate extremely effectively from the outside world even when no music is playing and although the earpad itself is not that large, it manages to avoid feeling constrictive or cramped and the drivers themselves seem to be well set back from the ear. The one piece of technology that hasn’t been shared from PSB is the active noise cancelling fitted to the M4U2. While the PSB noise cancelling system is absolutely superb, the passive noise isolation of the NAD is sufficiently good to ensure that omitting it isn’t a glaring error.
As befits a well thought out pair of hybrid designs, the NAD comes with some useful features to help them lead a double life. The HP50 is supplied with a pair of cords to best suit were you will be using them. The first is a conventional headphone cord, a metre long which terminates in a 3.5mm jack while the second is fitted with an Apple compatible inline remote for easier use on the move. NAD has fitted the microphone to the cord as well which is fine although this tends to be an awkward compromise between the placement of the mic close enough to your mouth to work properly and not having the remote too far up the cord to be practical to use. NAD has put the remote at a sensible point on the cord but this does mean that call quality isn’t as good as it might be when background noise levels are high. The cords themselves are flattened ribbon type affairs that are designed to reduce tangling - although like other examples of the breed, when they do tangle, they do so with style. One very welcome design feature shared with the PSB models is that the single cord can be attached to either earpad which means you don’t have to have the cord crossing you unless you want it to.
The HP50 is not a true collapsible design - it has no fold points but it does have earpads that fold through ninety degrees in order to reduce their size. Unusually this process is spring loaded so they always return to a ready to wear position even after they have been folded into the carrying pouch. The pouch itself is soft and can be stowed usefully flat when not in use and even when full of headphone it is still small enough to be carried around in a sensibly sized man bag. The HP50 also comes with a second pouch that stores the accessories which doesn’t seem to bear and relation to the main bag - NAD presumably working on the principle that you will have made your accessory choices before you take the headphones out and about.
When you have no prior history in headphones, designing them to look like the rest of the range for a degree of brand familiarity is not easy. This applies even more so when large parts of your product range are finished in a sturdy but not desperately sexy field grey. NAD is aware of this and the MP50 is part of the more visually interesting VISO series of products. The styling is clean and fairly elegant and the materials used feel pleasingly substantial and NAD has managed to make the HP50 feel light but relatively well built. Compared to the stunning industrial design of the Sennheiser Momentum and Harman Kardon BT, the HP50 gives a little ground but this is still an extremely attractive design.
SetupThe HP50 was mainly used with my laptop and headphone amp combination of Lenovo T530 and Furutech ADL Cruise but it was also used on the inevitable trip to Sainsburys with an iPhone 4 and also with my iPad 3. I also spent some time using the HP50 with the Parasound Z DAC that will be reviewed shortly. Music used included lossless and high res FLAC from Foobar, Spotify and other web based and on demand audio.
Sound QualityThe slight sense of deja vu I experienced when unboxing the HP50 continues when you connect them up and start listening. The test program that has gone into the NAD and its half-brothers is extensive and gives them a very distinctive performance. The good news for all the models is that this isn’t the sort of distinctive that puts off as many people as it attracts. The NAD is an extremely open and neutral performer. It never feels forced or strained and there isn’t a sense of any unnatural processing or sonic trickery going on. The HP50 simply sounds big and natural.
The size of the performance is slightly surprising given than the HP50 is not an especially large design. Although the earpads cover the ear completely, the NAD is one of the smaller hybrid models I have seen recently. Despite this, it has a real sense of scale to the performance and this is underpinned by genuinely excellent bass. The NAD manages to sound big and powerful but the bass doesn’t dominate the performance or sound artificial while it does so. There is also a genuine ability across various different types of bass rather simple low end shove. The plucked bass string with reverb that kicks off the Cinematic Orchestra’s Burn Out - a track I must have listened to nigh on a thousand times - is a phenomenal combination of weight and delicacy.
The upper registers are less striking in terms of stand out attributes but make up for this with a feeling of overall competence that is extremely reassuring. The NAD doesn’t have quite the same top end energy that the Titanium drivered Onkyo ES-HF300 can manage but equally you can listen to fairly aggressive and poorly recorded material without the NAD shredding the performance. Voices and instruments generally sound real and believable and the same size and scale of the performance gives them plenty of space to breathe. With smaller and more involved pieces of music, the NAD manages to reduce the scale and stay believable.
The other party piece of the NAD is the sensitivity. While I am a huge fan of the Sennheiser Momentum and Harman Kardon BT, I am under no illusions at all after some time spent with the HP50 that the NAD is able to reach volume levels on lower powered headphone amps that these designs can only dream of. This has some welcome benefits. The first is that the NAD can go extremely loud if you need it to although I do urge you to think of your ears while you do so. The second is more beneficial in that the HP50 can reach real world volume levels without pushing headphone amps too hard. With laptops in particular, this tends to mean that you can avoid the upper reaches of these amps' outputs which can get a little noisy when you do so. If you have been having gain issues with other designs, you need to look at the HP50.
This sensitivity combines to good effect with the noise isolation that the NAD offers. Throughout listening in public and when music lessons were taking place in the next room, I found myself only using limited volume levels because I wasn’t having to drown out external noise. This in turn makes the HP50 a very easy headphone to listen to for long periods of time because you never feel that you are running it especially hard or aggressively. For noisy public environments, the HP50 is extremely close to the PSB with active noise cancelling and this is a significant achievement.
This would be as much use as a handbrake on a rowing boat if the HP50 wasn’t comfortable to wear while you did so but it proves to be an extremely pleasant design to wear for long periods. The balance between sprung traction on the side of the head and the support across the skull is good too thanks to some well-judged padding on the headband. The design of the headband is a bit odd - there is a significant gap between your head and the band at points which looks a bit ungainly and if you are self-conscious about the size of your head, I’m afraid that the NAD is going to accentuate this.
- Clean, open and engaging sound
- Impressively sensitive
- Useful set of accessories
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- No noise cancelling or bluetooth functionality
- Non-remote cord might be a little short for home use
- Design not as attractive as some of the competition
NAD HP50 Headphones ReviewTaking on the existing challengers in this especially design-led segment of the headphone market is no simple task for any company’s first effort but NAD has done a phenomenal job. Helped along by access to some excellent R&D from the excellent PSB headphones, the HP50 is a headphone that combines genuinely excellent performance with a comfortable and well thought out design that even though it doesn’t fold, is usefully portable thanks to a sensible carry case and thoughtful design. It is unfazed by sampling rates and puts in a commendably even handed performance across a very wide range of music and TV programming.
Having carefully designed a something that ticks any objective design and functionality aspect that you might consider with a pair of headphones, I have to be picky to the point of pedantic to find issue with them. The full active noise cancelling of the PSB’s might tip the balance if you spend your life on planes and the Bluetooth connectivity of the Harman Kardon BT is a very useful thing for anyone on the move because whilst being able to adjust the side the cable attaches to on the NAD is handy, getting shot of it entirely is handier still. Finally on an emotive level, the Sennheiser Momentum at £10 more is still the best piece of industrial design I've seen in a while and the NAD doesn’t really stir the blood in quite the same way. These are minor weaknesses though. If you want a great pair of all-rounders for use at home and on the move - especially if you don’t have access to a hugely powerful headphone output, NAD has just moved to very near the top of any prospective shortlist.
Ease of Use9
Design and usability7
Value For Money8
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