5 high-end headphones that won't break the bank
As far back as I can remember, I have been an audioholic.
My earliest memory of testing speakers as a child involved "borrowing" ... and destroying my dad's tower speakers. By age 15, I had gone through even more stereo systems. When I received my driver's temps, my poor mom – she had the ugliest minivan ever made: a 1991 Pontiac Transport – had to sit in the passenger seat while I drove around and played the bassiest rap music I could find. That system was an amp and two 15" subwoofers, and I had installed everything.
In college, I worked as a car stereo installer, as well as designed and installed home theaters. Today, I am the guy that family and friends call for all of their computer or electronics needs. Many of my friends have kids in grade school or high school. I get asked the same questions like, "My son wants to get some Beats headphones for Christmas; are those any good?" or "My kid wants some new headphones, which ones are the best for your money?"
Before I tell you how I answer these questions, let's see how the most popular and most advertised Beats headphones compare to their lesser known competition. In this round-up, I will compare the following headphones: the V-MODA M-100 Crossfade ($298.99), Beats Studio ($229.99), V-MODA XS ($199.99), Audio Technica ATH-M50x ($129.99-$149.99) and the Marshall Monitor ($119.99-$149.99). The prices listed are the current street prices, not the retail price, and they are the headphones newest versions or revisions.
Testing was done with an iPhone 6+ using iTunes with Apple lossless music files (ALAC). I compared the headphones with the same songs using the iPhone by itself, a Fiio E12 amplifier ($129) and one of the best portable Amp/DACs (Digital to Analog Converter) you can buy: the CEntrance M8 ($699, and yes, that's a lot of money, but once you hear it, you will want it). All headphones had at least 50 hours of burn-in time. What I will be evaluating during this review is pretty straight forward: comfort, build quality, value and sound.
All of the headphones are designed to be used on the go with your phone and have the ability to make phone calls with their in-line microphones. The exception is the ATH-M50x, which is actually a professional studio monitor.
The iPhone 6 and 6+ have an excellent (noticeably better than previous generations) built-in DAC and a decent onboard amp. Your phone or iPod is all that most of you will ever use on these or any headphone/earphone that you buy; however, if you want to get the most out of them, an external amp or amp/DAC is the way to go. Once you try an external amp/DAC, it's easy to hear why this is the case.
The Fiio E12 has more than enough power for the headphones tested. Simply, plug it into your phone's headphone jack, strap it to your phone with the supplied band and you are set. The E12 directly amplifies the sound and has an optional bass boost.
If you want to amplify and noticeably improve sound quality, dynamics and soundstage, go with the CEntrance M8. By plugging in a short USB to Lightning cable, you bypass the iPhones Amp/DAC and use the M8s. If you are like me and have a variety of headphones and earphones, the M8 is well worth it.
Let's get the review started with the most to least expensive (for help with some of the terms used in this review, here's a glossary):
1. V-MODA Crossfade M-100 ($289.99)
The V-MODA M-100 has been out for a few years now and has been making waves from the start. It is an over-the-ear headphone, and after seeing it for the first time, I thought it looked small. If you have larger ears, you might find yourself tucking them inside the pad. The headphones apply the right amount of clamping force keeping them in place but still remaining comfortable on my head. The build quality is great; with a mix of metal and plastic, they have what I would call an industrial look that I very much like. As the most expensive headphone tested, I have high expectations. Let's see how they sound.
Playing these right out of the iPhone 6+, the M-100s can get pretty loud on most songs with no distortion. The bass is what the M-100 is known for, and it's definitely its strong suit. I found the mids and treble pretty flat to recessed at times, giving the M-100s a dark sound signature.
Having spent a lot of time with open-back headphones, the soundstage was at first a little closed in to my ears, but after comparing the M-100 to the rest in this test, they finished near the top. Now, time to plug the Fiio E12 into the phone and some power.
The difference in sound is immediate. With the E12, the sound gets less laid back with the extra muscle. The soundstage opens up a tad, and the bass is faster and really hits with authority. If you're a bass head, the Fiio E12 is a must with these as the bass can hit as hard as you want – especially after you turn on the bass boost (too much bass for me).
If you want to hear how good these headphones can sound, you will need to step up to the CEntrance M8. With the M8, the sound stage opens up even more, and the sound is noticeably cleaner. There is more treble, and the vocals and mids move forward, taking some of the darkness away. The bass is still there with authority, and if you want more, the M8 has two boost positions for bass. I lost sleep with the M-100/M8 combo, always wanting to listen to just one more song.
After hearing these, they're a good value; once you start creeping into the $300 range, there are some other great headphones to consider. They have a fun sound and great build quality – though the bass might be a little too much for some.
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