When a manufacturer enters a product sector for the first time, they face a number of choices in how they go about doing it. They can either take the view that their design process and styling is sufficiently suitable (and recognisable) to stand out in the new sector and build a product that reflects this. Alternatively, they can take the more cynical (if honest) decision that they would be better off carefully examining what the best in the category do and developing a product based on that. Generally, the larger and more recognisable brands feel compelled to go for the former approach but this is not without risks - technology you might be good at may have no bearing on the category you are moving into.
Onkyo is a brand that doesn’t generally do things by half. Their decision to pack the most advanced chipsets available into affordable AV receivers a few years ago gave them a degree of prominence that they have enjoyed ever since. They have pushed the technology fitted to all-in-one systems and their two channel products - if somewhat less commonly seen than their multichannel ones - are equally innovative. As such when they made the decision to enter the headphone market, it was perhaps a given that they would seek to do something a little different to what everybody else was doing.
As such, the four strong range (two in ears and two over ears) is not a ‘me too’ collection of products and feature a selection of technology that is bespoke to Onkyo. As I mention pretty much every time that I review a pair of headphones, the market is huge and extremely lucrative but with so many brands piling in, it stands to reason that there will be winners and losers. Is the Onkyo approach going to deliver the goods or should they have simply aped the competition?
The ES-HF300 is the flagship of the four Onkyo models and is the largest of the designs on sale as well. The result is a design that is sized in the currently very fashionable halfway house between full size home headphone and more traditional portable model. The result is a design that sits on the ear rather than enclosing it completely but the result is pretty much in keeping with other hybrid designs like the recently tested Sennheiser Momentum.
The core component of the ES-HF300 is a 40mm dynamic driver made from titanium. This is a fairly unusual fitment in that most drivers at the price are an alloy of a few different metals rather than a single one. The result should be a very lightweight driver indeed that should be easily motivated to high frequencies despite being relatively large. This size should aid bass performance as well but to make doubly sure, Onkyo has also fitted the ear enclosure of the ES-HF300 with a custom bass chamber mounted behind the driver. This hopefully reduces the amount of distance that the driver needs to travel to generate low frequencies.
The other unique aspect of the ES-HF300 is the cable arrangement. Onkyo has gone to the effort of designing a bespoke cable for their headphones in the pursuit of higher performance. This is a high purity oxygen-free design with a curiously soft and grippy elastomer surround. Onkyo says that the cable has almost no resistance and this is further ‘aided’ by there not being any remotes or microphones on it. Of course to achieve this positive attribute, the Onkyo doesn’t have an inline remote or microphone for use with smartphones and tablets (at the launch of the ES-HF300 Onkyo intimated that there might be a version of the cable that is so equipped). For those of you who are Android users and are fed up with being presented with headphones equipped with a completely superfluous remote, this won’t be a problem but the Onkyo goes up against a variety of designs that are fitted as such and it does mean that the ES-HF300 goes up against models that are a bit more convenient on the move.
The really curious aspect of the cables is the plug where the cable meets the earpiece. Onkyo has elected to use a connection that I have never seen before to secure the cable and fitting it is a bit of a lottery. I was able to fit one side on the first time of trying but the other side - despite doing exactly the same thing - took fifteen minutes and faffing, fiddling and - yes, I admit it - shouting to get it to go in. I’m not completely sure what advantage this connection had over a more conventional mini jack in performance terms but it is a great deal harder to fit. This also means that the cable goes to both earpads and can be felt on both sides of your neck but you get used to this.
Aesthetically, the ES-HF300 is on stronger ground. Onkyo has taken the decision to give the ES-HF300 styling that makes it looks like a member of the Onkyo product line which is an impressive achievement given that headphones don’t visibly have much in common with an AV Receiver. The styling is clean, modern and free of unnecessary flourishes. The brushed metal finish on the earpad complete with indent looks really smart and the curved mount around them is another nice touch too. The earpads fold flat and Onkyo supplies a good quality carry bag for the ES-HF300 as well. Other nice touches include the way that the padding is built into the headband to keep the lines as clean as possible and the way that Onkyo has gone to the effort of painting the inner section of the headband that appears when you increase the size - most companies leave this unpainted.
The build quality of the Onkyo is extremely good too. Making a pair of headphones that are light and solid at the same time is quite an engineering challenge but Onkyo has managed to do it with the ES-HF300. They are also comfortable to wear as well. The weight distribution is extremely even and the pressure that the earpads apply a very pleasing amount of pressure. On balance, I found the Sennheiser Momentum to be slightly more comfortable but there really isn’t much in it.
The Onkyo was tested in the standard headphone procedure with an iPhone 4 and iPad 3 for portable use and a Lenovo ThinkPad with and without a Furutech ADL Cruise headphone amp for domestic use. The ES-HF300 has been at my disposal for a while so they have been used on trains, tubes and in public spaces as well as the inevitable trip to Sainsburys. Material used has included lossless and high res FLAC via Songbird and compressed sources such as Spotify and YouTube. I also had the opportunity to watch a few programs via iPlayer and Sky Player.
The most initially interesting aspect of the Onkyo was working out where they sit in the brand sonically. Although there are similarities between the stereo and multichannel lines, I have found that the stereo equipment is often slightly warmer and fuller than the multichannel equipment and I prefer this to the AV amplifiers. After quite a bit of time with the ES-HF300, I think it is more akin to the two channel line-up than the AV Receivers.
This means that the ES-HF300 is a controlled, composed but revealing pair of headphones. The most interesting aspect of this overall performance is that the choice of titanium does seem to have an effect on the overall sound quality of the design. Titanium is of course extremely light (pretty much the only way to improve on it without going for a ball of glowing gas is Beryllium which comes with some serious engineering challenges) but controlling some aspects of the resonance can be an issue. With the diaphragm so close to the ear, there is not much in the way of a margin for error in terms of getting this right and the good news for Onkyo is that they seem to have succeeded. In doing so, they have created a pair of earphones that is very ‘fast’ to listen to with extremely impressive dynamics and an ability to keep up with complex music that can make some other designs seem a little leaden. They powered through Kraftwerk’s Tour De France with real enthusiasm. The bassline is deep, detailed and moves with exceptional speed and drive.
Neither is this speed something that only benefits faster music. The way that the Onkyo goes about producing the sparse soundscape of The Cinematic Orchestra’s To Build a Home with an accuracy and elegance that is hard not like. ‘Speed’ in audio is a maddeningly hard concept to describe in writing but the Onkyo effectively makes music in a way that ensures that nothing gets in the way of anything else. The resulting performance is extremely easy to follow and usually entertaining for it.
The other area where the Onkyo is extremely strong is in the soundstage it manages to create. Soundstage with headphones - especially ones of this nature where the earpad is rather less than full sized - is effectively an illusion but the Onkyo manages to create a convincing sense of air and space with recordings that is very likeable. This is aided by very good noise isolation from the outside world which means that you don’t have to drive them very hard which in turn helps the overall dynamics. The placement of voices and instruments is easy to follow and this makes the ES-HF300 an effective partner on trains and tubes.
The downsides to the Onkyo are not too severe and will depend slightly on the music that you listen to. The augmented bass from the chambers is deep, fast and detailed but there is a small handover - roughly around the 90-100Hz point where bass moves from being partly a result of activity from the chamber to sound entirely created from the driver and there is a fractional point where neither is functioning at 100%. Equally, although the ES-HF300 is not prone to brightness or harshness, it is also not the fullest sounding headphone on the market and Sennheiser’s Momentum can generate a slightly richer and fuller bodied presentation with voices and instruments - albeit at the cost of an extra £70. This does mean that the Onkyo will let you know in no uncertain terms if you are listening to poorly recorded or very compressed music. Spotify Premium is fine but the free service can sound a bit ragged with the same material.
Equally, the Onkyo is very good with lossless and high res material and this, coupled with the lack of inline remote and mic would point to the ES-HF300 being considered as a capable home headphone with a useful ability to go out and about when you needed them to. The only catch with this is that the bespoke cable is realistically a bit short for comfortable home use and thanks to those unique plugs at one end, can’t be changed. If you are looking for laptop headphones though, the cable is pretty much a perfect length and the jacket does seem to deliver on Onkyo’s promise of not tangling.
- Clear, fast and detailed sound
- Lovely build quality
- Handsome deign
- Fiddly cable with no remote or mic
- Will not flatter poor recordings
- Slightly uneven handover from lower bass to mid bass
Onkyo ES-HF300 Over Ear Headphone Review
The Onkyo ES-HF300 impresses in a number of ways. As a design they avoid shamelessly copying what is perceived to be popular at the time and instead have chosen to implement some interesting technology that isn’t generally seen elsewhere. The result is a very well built, handsome and comfortable pair of headphones that have a speed and clarity that is quite unlike most of the competition. If you like what the Onkyo can do, very little else at or near the price is likely to be a better match.
At the same time, the ES-HF300 is lacking some touches that would make it a true all-rounder. The lack of inline mic and remote might benefit sound quality (although as you cannot change the cable for an ‘ordinary’ one, this can’t be tested) but it does mean that the Onkyo is in some ways neither one thing (a true home headphone) or the other (a true portable design). If you like the way the ES-HF300 goes about making music (and many will), I am sure that listeners will find a way to get the best from this innovative and interesting design.
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