Review: Four full-size headphones for affordable audiophile luxury
One reason I love headphones is that they represent an affordable luxury. In contrast to the best wines, exotic super cars, Michelin-star-adorned restaurants, and tropical vacations, a set of world-class headphones that will entertain you, day-in and day-out, for years can be had for as little as $300 or so. In the world of headphones, nothing says luxury like a big ol’ set of cans with pillowy ear pads that seal off the outside world and leave you intimately connected with your music.
I tested four sets of full-size, high-end headphones, ranging in price from $310 to $399. These models are all supra-aural (or over-ear), and incorporate closed (or sealed) designs, in which the earpieces have closed backs to reduce external noise (and to keep your music from bothering others). This style of headphones is appealing in many listening environments, but a closed design also presents acoustic challenges that can result in bloated, flabby bass and a closed-in sound. For the most part, the four models I tested avoid these issues.
The models here sit at or near the top of their respective product lines, offer an inline remote-and-microphone module for use with portable devices, and sport removable cables—a great feature to ensure that you can bask in that audio luxury for a long time to come. Most work well with the weak headphone jacks found on most computers, media players, smartphones, and tablets, though all benefit from better amplification. (See our headphones buying guide for more info on different types of headphones, along with recommended models.)
V-Moda Crossfade M-100
Last year, V-Moda launched the highly regarded Crossfade M-80, the first of the company’s then-new M line of “modern audiophile” headphones. The M-80 is portable, impeccably constructed, and sounds great. It’s an impressive all-around headphone.
V-Moda has since taken its full-size, over-ear Crossfade LP2 and given it the “M” treatment. During the development process, V-Moda enlisted “200 audiophiles, editors, artists, DJs and Grammy-winning musicians” (including the enthusiasts at Head-Fi) to provide feedback, yielding what the company calls the “world’s first crowdsourced headphone”, the $310 V-Moda Crossfade M-100 (4.5 of 5 rating).
The results are, once again, impressive. A surprisingly compact “exoskeleton” case—reminiscent of an alien egg, and continuing the extraterrestrial theme of the M-80’s case—packs the M-100 into about the same volume as the case for the much-smaller M-80. (The M-100’s case is shorter and narrower but thicker.) Inside, elastic bands hold a 3.5mm-to-1/4-inch adapter, two “V-Corks” (see below), and two cables: One is a standard headphone cable but with a built-in splitter for sharing audio with a friend, while the other has a single-button inline remote module and a separate inline microphone module. On the latter cable, the microphone is located at mouth level for optimal audio pickup, while the remote module is located lower down to make it easier to use. (Unfortunately, unlike with the M-80, you don’t get an Apple-style, three-button remote.)
The M-100 continues V-Moda’s streak of well-built and cleverly designed headphones. Two stout hinges let you fold the earpieces into the headband for travel. The M-100’s cable can plug into either earpiece, so you can choose which side of your head the cable (and consequently the microphone and remote) hangs down; you place one of the aforementioned V-Cork plugs into the unused socket to prevent the cavity from affecting the earpiece’s acoustics. (Yes, this produces a measurable difference in sound quality.) The headband adjusts in discrete but unmarked steps.
My review sample came in a matte-black design that possesses a Batman level of cool; glossy-black and white-and-silver versions are also available. The most succinct term for them is bad-ass. And though “built like a tank” sounds like a cliché, it aptly describes the M-100’s sturdiness. Twist the headband 180 degrees, and the M-100 metaphorically shrugs and returns to its original shape. The cables are Kevlar-reinforced, and everything feels remarkably strong and solid. I can’t imagine much, short of intentional violence with something from a toolbox, that would damage the M-100. (Should you manage this feat, V-Moda offers a two-year warranty against manufacturing defects, along with a 50-percent replacement discount in the event of user-inflicted damage or out-of-warranty failure.)
Like the M-80, the M-100 sports interchangeable “shield” faceplates on the earpieces, and you can order shields with optional text or logos (including custom logos). If you purchase the M-100 directly from V-Moda, you’ll get an additional pair of shields, including customization, for free; or you can purchase shields later for $25 a set. Also available are a $30 boom mic, a $30 coiled cable, and a three-button remote/microphone cable (the last available only via V-Moda’s customer service department).
I have only two minor complaints about these fantastically well-designed headphones. First, if you have a big head, the M-100’s emphasis on portability makes it nearly an on-ear design—the earpieces are smaller than those on many full-size headphones. Second, like the M-80 (and most of the models covered here), the M-100 could use more headband padding. As a big-headed person, I found that the M-100 got a bit uncomfortable over long listening sessions, though listeners who are less cranially endowed will probably be fine.
Does the M-100’s sonic performance match its outstanding design? Mostly. The M-100 sounds very good overall, with a low-end emphasis that doesn’t overpower the midrange and treble, and with good detail in each region. (This is what V-Moda means by “modern audiophile”: sound that’s generally balanced and accurate, but has a bit of a controlled boost on the low end.) The M-100 delivers welcome, though incremental, improvements in clarity and detail over the M-80—but for the price I’d like to see further enhancements. The M-100 also adds a bit more bass boost than I consider ideal.
Those are small criticisms of what is, overall, an amazingly well-designed product. Though the M-100’s performance doesn’t quite match that of the Sennheiser Momentum and the AKG K551 (below), its design, build quality, style, and accessories allow it to compete favorably with them at its $310 price. And if its street price drops the way its sibling’s price has (I’ve seen the M-80 for as little as $150), the M-100 will be a serious bargain.
AKG’s K701 (currently available as the $350 Q701) was hailed upon its release as one of the best headphones in the world. The K701 and Q701 have since been surpassed by headphones with even higher prices, but both still sound great—the K701 has been my reference headphone for five years. The company has attempted to match the open-design K701’s performance in a closed headphone with the $330 K551. In a nod to today’s dominant listening sources, the K551 features a cable with an Apple-style, three-button inline remote and microphone module. (The K551’s sibling, the $300 AKG K550, has a longer, thicker cable for home use, and omits the remote/mic module, but it is otherwise identical.) The K551 is available in black or white, each with silver accents. The only included accessory is a 3.5mm-to-1/4-inch adapter—this is the only model of the four discussed here that comes without a case or bag.
In my opinion, the K551’s clean, modern design is a step up from the busier, space-age styling of the K701. The earpieces are large, black circles that evoke vinyl LPs. The stainless-steel headband adjusts in discrete, numbered increments; this approach isn’t as convenient as the K701’s elastic strap, which requires no manual adjustment, but the K551’s design nevertheless permits a quick, consistent fit. The thin, black cable sports the aforementioned remote/microphone module, which is relatively small. I found the buttons difficult to distinguish by feel, and the thick plastic around the cable’s 3.5mm plug may prevent it from fitting through the headphone-jack opening in some device cases. The K551’s earpieces fold flat for travel, but the resulting size isn’t very compact.
The angle of the earpieces adjusts both side-to-side and up and down. This is good, because I found that the K551 requires careful adjustment to achieve optimal bass response. Finding the right positioning was initially tricky (I angled the earpieces slightly up and toward the back of my ear), but I quickly learned to put them on easily and consistently. Thanks to this precision adjustment, the K551 creates a tight seal without clamping too strongly on your head, and I found the K551’s earpads to be very comfortable.
Like its fit, the K551’s sound is occasionally frustrating, but ultimately quite rewarding. Sonically, the K551 bears a strong resemblance to the K701, and that’s mostly for the best—the K551 has the least “closed” sound I’ve heard from a sealed design. Like the K701, the K551 delivers a truly impressive amount of instrumental detail, and it sounds crystal clear, particularly in the midrange and treble frequencies. This detail and clarity are due in part to a somewhat bright balance, thanks to lower frequencies that are precise and clear, but not as visceral or powerful as with some other headphones in this class (a common complaint about the older K701, as well).
Bass aside, there’s another caveat to consider: The K551’s short cable and inline remote imply use with a portable device, but the K551’s brightness exacerbates the faults of portable players, with their grainy audio output and low power. As a result, with a poor source, you’ll hear a bit of high-frequency harshness in some recordings. To get your money’s worth, you need to give the K551 some special treatment. Get a good fit, and use the K551 with a headphone amplifier, a nice digital-to-analog converter (DAC), and some lossless-encoded files, and it’ll sing.
All this is to say that in the right setting, the K551 will amaze you by revealing musical nuance and detail that most other headphones—including the other models here—fail to capture: It will let you hear new and wonderful things in your music. If your primary purpose is portable listening, however, be aware that those models are a better match for portable sources—and the M-100 and Momentum are easier to transport, too.
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