Top positive review
95 people found this helpful
I Surrender and Reluctantly Join the Cult of VModa
on April 21, 2014
VModa has been on my headphone radar for years as a maker of stylish durable headphones that were a tad too "mainstream" for my musical taste, i.e. had overpowering bass as a part of their tuning that evidently delighted the "Beats Generation" of new premium headphone shoppers. The earlier M80 model impressed me to some degree, as the tuning moved away from thumpity thump, but the M80 IMO had a few too many secondary issues (to be discussed later as compared to the XS) to really strike me as worth owning. The M100 struck me as a step backward, going back to great gobs of bass permeating the sound, so the VModa "blip" on my radar faded a bit. Now along comes the XS, a revised M80. A new direction or more of the same?
Succinctly, the latter case: a new and excellent direction. Most of my complaints about the M80 have been addressed, portability has gotten even better, and the tuning is now more along the lines of something a "reasonable audiophile" would enjoy, i.e. an accurate but fun sound that works well with mobile devices, and does not require a $500 Goldenplatz Moneywaster Mk VI amp to sound good. The new XS runs neck in neck with my other favorite mobile set of headphones, the KEF M500, and in some ways surpasses them. I'll compare those two headphones in some detail in this review, and will also discuss changes from the M80.
My old complaints with the Vmoda M80:
1) Cord has to be unplugged for storage.
2) Too small for my L hat size head; ratcheted to 10 of 10 clicks, still barely fit.
3) Comfort kind of a problem, tight clamping force makes pained ears in an hour or so of listening.
4) Tuning: mids were pushed artificially, making vocals too prominent, especially when acoustical or low volume amplified instruments were playing (think The National).
5) Poor isolation, letting too much noise out and (especially) in, making the M80 a poor commuter phone.
The new XS compared to the old M80:
1) Still has to be done, but more and more phones have taken this design route recently as cases have gotten smaller.
2) Redesign has made frame smaller, yet new shaping is more friendly to we big skulled types. My head and ears now fit comfortably on ratchet 9 out of 11. (Why 11 ratchets? Dunno; Spinal Tap fans on the Vmoda design team maybe?)
3) Very comfy, light grip on ears, virtually no wear points on skull at all. Hours of wearing possible if you don't have glasses, some discomfort if you have glasses after more than 2 hours (I am in that situation) but this is actually much better than other on ear designs for me, even the Senn HD 25. the old on ear comfort champ in my experience.
4) Tuning done perfectly. Mids sound natural and real now, even with same track to track comparison for music that had the old "pushed vocals" issue that I noticed.
5) Isolation also much better, no leakage from inside to external, external noise much less of an issue. Though not quite as capable of isolation as the KEFs or ATH M50s, the XS does a better job than most on ear phones do.
Vmoda XS vs KEF M500:
Build & Aesthetics: KEF uses more "bespoke" materials, aluminum and somewhat softer and glossier pleather. VM has more of an "industrial" feel, though still comfy and high quality. Think Jaguar vs Porsche. Both phones have reliable single hinge clicking system to fold up arms. KEF driver cups can swivel to fold flat, though the screws used in this folding process look like they might loosen up a bit with use. XS does not fold flat. Both headphones are attractive and sturdy. The XS can fold up to be really tiny (some sunglasses are bigger!) while KEF can get very compact, but the case with folded headphones inside is still at least 50% bigger than the XS. The arms of the XS ratchet out with a precise series of clicks, while the KEFs use a non-clicking style of ratcheting, so precisionists like me can't tell you how many clicks it takes to fit their head. (I would guess my head takes up roughly 90% of the available space on the KEFs, so roughly the same proportions between the two for me. Hatsize XL folks probably will want to try either model before they buy to ensure fit and comfort.)
Comfort: KEF clamps a bit tighter on the ears. Both feel very light on the head, though the XS is lighter in weight. Vmoda's "mind the gap" campaign non-withstanding, the KEFs have only slightly more proportional space between the frames and your head, so neither set will make you look like Robot Monster. Top of head comfort is excellent for both, on ear comfort somewhat better for the KEF despite the tighter clamping, as the on ear pressure is spread over more of the ear due to the bigger pads used. The XS' smaller pad focuses pressure over a more restricted area, which is of a bit more concern for eyeglass wearers. Bottom line for my four-eyed self: KEF = can wear for 3 hours or more w. no discomfort, XS = can wear for two hours, and then need a 5 minute break due to fairly minor earlobe pain.
Sound: Both models offer excellent levels of clarity and detail, and both have no glaring tuning deficiencies. However, one of these models is trying to hedge the corporate bets a bit by beefing up the bass a bit to try and grab at least a few of the less plebian Beats fans to cross-shop. Surprisingly, the manufacturer aiming for the basshead market here is KEF, presumably because all their headphone eggs are in one basket for now, while VModa has numerous different options for those having more bassic instincts.
That said, KEF does not embarrass itself with too much bass emphasis like some "bespoke audio" headphone makers have (Klipsch, B&W). The lower frequency emphasis in the M500s is still reasonably done and does not eat into the clarity of other frequencies too much. I have a standard test for bass balance, where I listen to a few tracks from Stevie Ray Vaughan's blues-rock album "Real Deal Volume I". Take "Pride and Joy" as an example; the vocals and guitar should not be drowned out by the bass guitar and percussion. Even many reputedly excellent headphones (e.g. Grado SR60) fail that test and make SRV's guitar work take second stage to the bassline and drums which surely was not the intent in the recording. Another work I use for this is movement 1 of Mahler's 2nd Symphony with Mehta & the VPO, where percussion can dominate the crescendos very easily, and another good test case is most anything by death metal faves Opeth or Hollenthon, where a too heavy emphasis on the kick drums and bass guitars can make the music sound bloated and chaotic.
KEF, despite its warmth of tone, does a good job in these test cases. KEF seems somewhat more at home with the rock and metal pieces, and the slight bass bloat seemed more prominent in the Mahler movement. I felt the Mahler piece was delivered with maybe 70% of intended recording accuracy, and the blues and metal pieces probably around 90%+.
The XS passes these tests with even greater aplomb. The lower frequencies are well balanced and do not wash out the mids or treble in the least. Yet despite the usually alleged "portable audiophile" branding (e.g. the anemic and sterile AKG 550, or the bass deprived Martin Logan headphone venture) the XS can deliver lots of bass when called for. Massive Attack, Chemical Bros, and Portishead were also tested, and the XS could match the KEF blow by blow in bass extension. So bass fans who like accurate "as recorded" bass can still delight in their favorite sound, as long as they don't want to hear it where it doesn't belong, and don't want to hear bass wash out significant amounts of the other frequencies. I would say the XS exceeds the 95% accuracy to recording mark for the blues and metal pieces, and maybe 80% of the recorded accuracy for the classical piece. Again, the issue is not the quality of KEF's driver, which seems quite capable, but rather the tuning of that driver, which seems designed to give a boost to bass that results in some noticeable though not significant degradation of accuracy in the recording balance.
All in all, the XS delivers what would probably be considered the more "audiophile sound", yet also with sufficient bass capability so as not to disappoint, and also with only moderate volume settings (60%) on a Galaxy 4. The KEF wins in terms of soundstage, sounding larger and more carefully differentiated, and also in quality of treble, with somewhat better articulated and less fatiguing treble than the XS. Both phones though offer better lively accurate though listenable treble in a portable can, more so than any other contender (making the B&W P5 and Sennheiser Momentum specifically look like yesterday's news...). And both sets have no problem with their mids, offering a crisp up-front presentation. In general, both of these models offer the same up-front in the band sort of presentation that used to be called the "Grado sound". The ATH M50s in comparison offers perhaps a broader soundstage, though at the expense of a more distant less engaging presentation.
Isolation: Here is where the KEF recovers a bit of lost ground. The tighter clamping, broader soundstage, bass emphasis, and bigger pads make the KEF a much better commuter. Using the NYC subways as a test, the KEF is only slightly less good at isolation than the Beyer 1350 (the current champ for such things in my judgment, though the 1350's sound, at least with portables, and its pitiful lack of portability features, sadly takes it out of the running for the title king of the commuting phones). The XS is pretty good in the subways, at least when on the train cars themselves, but tends to get drowned out if you're on the local platform and an express zooms by at 30 mph on the center track. The bass boost of the KEF makes it a better contender in such instances, and the drone of airplane engines would also (probably) help more of the KEF's sound to be audible in such instances. The XS is a much better commuter than the M80 was, and sounds just fine walking around town or at home studying while someone has the TV on, but in "extreme" commuting (subway or airplane) the KEF is a better choice.
Features: KEF includes two cables, one with IOS 3 button and mic (which becomes Android single button as the vol controls don't work), along with a signal splitter and a 1/8th inch stereo headphone jack converter, and a nice rigid carrying case. Vmoda gives you only one cable (single button with mike, an odd de-contenting from the M80 which gave you two cables) along with a nice rigid carrying case. Given the price point difference, this is not a big surprise, except for the missing second cable from VModa. Plus you can connect other headphones to the opposite driver input plug port in the XS if you really want to share your signal.
Value: Vmoda nails this one. Better sound (in most ways) smaller size, comparable attractiveness, comfort, and build quality, with a better warranty, for two thirds of the price of KEF.
So to conclude:
KEF M500 = better for eyeglass wearers, commuters, recovering bassheads who still want a little bit of inappropriate thump from time to time, treble enthusiasts.
VModa XS = better for audiophiles / fans of hearing music the way it was recorded, those wanting the smallest possible good sounding headphones, those who mistreat headphones, and those without the full amount of the KEFs purchase price.
At the end of the day, if you can only afford one of these, you have a tough choice to make. But if you can only buy one, the VModa's considerably cheaper price and relative overall strengths versus KEF means you could make an untroubled decision to go for the XS without regrets.
Conclusion: The XS strikes me as VModa's first "post basshead" design, a sign of their confidence as a company and their ability to hit whatever tuning and production marks they aim for. The XS design is something Sennheiser for instance has been striving to make for years and has generally failed at, either utterly (PX200) or mostly (the Momentum). It's thrilling for a long time headphone fan to see a new company produce such an excellent product while also making it (relatively) affordable, stylish, and eminently portable. Good job VModa!