January 13, 2015
(Note: a family member bought it for me on Amazon)
Here's my review and comments regarding 10 very different headphones that I was fortunate to have access to (I own or borrowed from friends), hoping that it may be useful to you since I'm comparing them side-by-side: Philips Fidelio X2, V-Moda M-100, KEF M500, Sennheiser Momentum, Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, Sony MDR1R, Bose AE2, Bose QC15 and QC3, Monster Turbine in-ear ($180, I bought a long time ago, just for comparison purposes), various Beats by Dr. Dre models, Sol Republic & the like. I tried many different styles of music and compared side-by-side for each song before drawing a conclusion. Bottom line: the newly released Philips Fidelio X2 sounded overall the best to my ears, and by a lot (read below for general comments, then comparisons). But as you know it's also an open headphone (leaks sound) and big (not meant for travel).
But first I will preface with general comments so you can understand where I came from and what I was looking for, as it may not be the same for you. And in the end, people have different tastes and don't always hear the same thing -- this is very clear (no pun intended.) I decided to post a review after finally buying the Philips Fidelio X2 because:
1) After testing approximately 10 headphones under $300, this one sounded to me, and by far: the most natural, "analog", "warm" but still relatively neutral, with life-like/"live music" type of sound, and overall was the best-sounding pair of headphones. It was the closest to the sound I would hear from the actual instruments playing live, or playing music with high-end speakers in a nice room with wood floors, for example. Very detailed sound and clarity, without harsh treble, and with appropriate bass (volume and frequency extension). I'm not saying it's perfect, and I've not tried $1,000+ headphones, but it's way, way better than the other 9 alternative headphones I've tried. To my ears. By comparing with what I hear in real life.
2) I have read reviews comparing the X2 to the Fidelio X1, L2, or Sennheiser HD650, etc, which was very useful... but not yet many reviews comparing other mainstream headphones coming up as top sellers or top-reviewed on Amazon. Yes, some of those may have very different characteristics, but that I tried them in my quest for warm, natural-sounding headphones that would have adequate bass but yet would also be clear WITHOUT any harsh treble or being too bright.
3) I've found a very significant difference of opinion in reviews, at times wondering if I was listening to a completely different pair of headphones than some reviewers. For example, I did not find that the well-reviewed Sennheiser Momentum was natural sounding (it was clear to me I was listening to headphones, not real-life male/female voices and music/instruments), nor was it "warm" in any way (as was strangely described in several reviews)....at least in my comparisons with other headphones.
I found that the bottom line is that you need to test headphones by yourself, as everyone has different tastes, and obviously different hearing (at times, stuff I would hear with some headphones in some songs, other people in the room with me trying the same headphones did not notice or agree, and vice-versa). Music needs to be heard to be judged, at least if you care about headphones. I initially didn't think I cared all that much, until I heard more than one pair, listened carefully, and realized that not only there were indeed major differences, but some headphones downright hurt my ears because the sound was too "harsh" or the treble was bad/too bright (this was true even with high quality/uncompressed music, not just lower-resolution MP3s or streaming music). Surprisingly, pick most of the headphones I tried, and you will find on Amazon hundreds of 5-star positive reviews claiming those headphones are "the best on the market"...they can't all be the best, so which one to choose? By looking at the negative reviews? Well, I found that it helps a lot to read when a person/magazine is reviewing several headphones at once, not a single standalone review. And mostly listen yourself to different headphones, with different songs, to decide. I found that for some songs, there were relatively minor differences in between the top 3 contenders after extensive listening, while for some other songs, it was night-and-day -- and I didn't even need to do an A-vs-B comparison, I could tell immediately something was off with one pair of headphones for example. (I always did comparisons using high-bitrate music and a high-quality discrete PC sound card or amplifier, in a quiet environment.)
Continuing with general comments, I also initially found odd that frequently user reviews start with "I'm not an audiophile, but..." yet have a bunch of terms I had never heard and had no idea what they meant or could possibly mean such as: a "laid back sound" or "forward" or "dark" or "grainy" or "fast" or "present" or "liquid" or "dry". And I could go on. Well, I sure hope the headphones are "dry", unless they fell in the bathtub ;o) Now, more seriously, after reading definitions for those terms and listening to 10 headphones, I have a better idea what some of those words could mean. But I found odd that some of those terms were used sometimes to describe a very specific aspect of the sound of the headphones...while to my ears, there was another more simple, major, more significant difference in the overall sound that was not discussed in the review...like, the treble just hurts my ears; or it sounds like the music is coming from a metal can, not real life, and no I could never listen to it.
As a final note before the comparison: it seems that some people want more treble/overly bright headphones to have a very clear and "open" sound. I found that in the best reviews from dedicated magazines they agreed that this is not true with higher-end headphones. Headphones don't need a lot of harsh treble to be clear....The Fidelio X2 is PERFECTLY clear, but NOT harsh at all, and NOT bright (glad I found it!). Personally, I prefer "warm", natural sounding headphones, like a warm tone of a warm voice in an acoustic room with wood floors...not bright headphones that sound like there is a cheap turbo-charged tweeter in them. I also cannot, cannot listen to headphones with sibilance, the term meaning that when the letter "s" is pronounced, especially with female vocals, it sound like a snake hurting your ears and it sounds nothing like what an "s" would sound in real life coming from a person in front of you. Unfortunately, to my ears, this occurs on many headphones, where there is a bunch of treble and a bunch of bass in a very unbalanced way...and that's the case apparently for most of the popular mainstream headphones sold at big box stores which I quickly crossed off my list. Sometimes this is due to poor compressed recordings (some 128 kbps MP3s), but sometimes not, as some of the top headphones I tried never had that effect.
Now the actual review (I cannot stress enough that the comments I make come from comparing the various headphones):
1. I started with a visit to a famous electronics store (hint: store colors are blue and yellow). I tried the Beats by Dr. Dre, and other variations of the Beats headphones. I had heard of the bad reviews, but I didn't care, I just wanted to try for myself. I don't like that people bash popular products, just because they are popular. But, well, I'd agree with the reviews, they sounded so bad to me that they hurt my ears if I listened to them for a few songs...but NOT because the sound is unbalanced and there's a lot of bass. I like bass. I like music, and I play the piano/guitar, but I (like a lot of people) also enjoy sometimes perhaps artificially deep bass in songs and I have subwoofers at home (10" and 12"). But here, it sounds like a subwoofer merged with a harsh tweeter. There's no mid, like the vocals from male and female voices, instruments, etc. This is true in many full-size speakers too, and I just hate that: if you have a large woofer and a tweeter, you reproduce the bass and the highs, but WHERE is the mid frequency, like 250 Hz to 3 KHz, the one that represent human voices and most instruments? It's like missing 75% of the music!! Now, for some home theater systems for movies, like Bose makes, it can work; "audiophiles" say it's no good, but to some, it sounds good, no problem. But here, I found that especially with headphones, it didn't work for me. Because there was bass, yes, but the vocals sounded as if they came from a harsh tweeter. It hurt my ear, and it sounded "thin" too. I just couldn't listen to it. Plus the headphones were physically not comfortable. The reviews bashing Beats usually point to the accentuated bass...but to me I liked the bass OK, the problem was the rest of the sound. The sound was weird and unnatural. Maybe on some specific songs it can work, but to me it's unpleasant, the harshness of the treble and how it sounds "digital" (as in heavily compressed music that you're streaming online from a bad website and with digital artifacts).
2. I tried others, like Sol Republic, cheaper Sony headphones, etc. Simply put: again, the sound was certainly not "warm" or "analog-like". Almost always again, there was harsh treble, no mids (i.e. voices sounded nothing like a real life person in front of you, no way you could be confused as to whether a person was singing in front of you), and it was just unpleasant to my ears, period.
3. I tried the Bose AE2 and noise-cancelling headphones QC15 and QC3. (I own the QC15 and for using in planes it's great, even if the sound is not excellent - in the end it's better than a higher quality sounding pair of headphone with no noise cancellation, because it so effectively removes the engine noise that you can at least actually hear just the music not the plane). The QC15 sounds more harsh and digital than the AE2 I believe, but not much. Either way, they were better than Beats in my opinion, but still not natural, not warm, and some harshness in the treble. The music doesn't sound very high-definition and real-life/live music. When there's a bunch of instruments playing it's not well "separated", it's like all mixed up and you can't hear individual instruments as well and it's not very pleasant (I'd describe this as "cacophony"). Interestingly, the QC3 sounds very warm and not harsh at all, but it lacks treble and clarity so much that the sound is not clear at all, it's muffled. That's my high-level summary and for some reason I didn't see that in too many QC3 reviews.
4. Audio-Technica ATH-M50x: the soundstage was OK, and there was good deep bass (compared to other headphones in this review and to my taste)...but again, harsh treble and sibilance. Voices sounded thin/ again the mids were missing, it sounded more like a subwoofer with a harsher tweeter. I just could not listen to them, too much harsh treble, it hurts my ears after a few songs. Sibilance was also bad. But they are cheaper, so that explains it. And they were better to my ears than the more expensive Beats by Dre for example.
5. Years ago I bought Monster In-Ear Turbines. Tons of bass (most of any I've tried I believe, more than the Beats), warm sound, soft, not harsh at all. But I found that it clearly lacked treble and the sound was not clear, not "high-definition", and it sounded very muffled. Yes I like bass and warmth, but not if the sound is muffled!
So I started wondering, is the choice only between harsh treble and "warm" headphones which sound muffled? Is there a headphone that is warm, not bright/harsh yet completely clear, and well reviewed by "audiophile" websites/magazines? Fortunately, yes.
6. All the reviews at the time raved about the Sennheiser Momentum, being very warm, excellent high-definition sound and soundstage, the one to get, etc. It was early 2014 I believe. So, first of all, as many reviews point out, the ear cup is small and my ears didn't fit well inside, bundled up and so it hurt. The look and quality of the leather was great, but just because of the fit, I could not keep it on for long. Second, the sound was not "warm" at all to my ears. Period. It was neutral to me. Third, and I don't know how to exactly describe this, but the soundstage was not good to my ears at all, it sounded like the music is coming from headphones, you could not be mistaken and think it's coming from real-life, or even full-size speakers in a room; and certainly not compared to the Philips Fidelio X2 or even the V-Moda M-100. To me, slightly exaggerated, it sounded like music playing through a metal can, that's the best I can describe it. Or "thin" sound too. Not even comparing it to another headphone, it didn't sound right to my ears. It's not bad, but it wasn't worth $300+. (Note: since then those headphones dropped in price by almost half, so there must be a reason...) BUT, I will point out that the music/instrument separation sounded good (not mixed up). To test this on headphones, I listen to for example the main chorus of "Drive By" by Train (and several other songs I won't list but you get the idea), the part where there's a bunch of different instruments playing together and the instruments are all loud, and if you play that on loop and test different headphones you'll hear major differences. Also, the bass was deep compared to other headphones in this review, and the treble was OK to my ears, not harsh.
7. Sony MDR1R: it did sound very warm, analog-like sound. The mids were there, not missing, with again warm/natural male/female voices. The sound was open, like in a real room with speakers. So that part was better than the Sennheiser Momentum for sure. And they were very very light and very comfortable, the most comfortable of all headphones I tried. BUT, as the reviews described: it seriously lacked bass (compared to ALL other headphones I tested in this review), and the sound wasn't as "high-definition"/hi-fi, more "mid-fi" as many reviews described it, I don't know how else to explain it, but I agree. And the sound lacked some "punch", it was more flat. Also instrument separation in music was not as good. So overall that was not an option. At that point, I was looking for basically headphones that would be a mix of Sennheiser Momentum and Sony MDR1R!
8. KEF M500: (I initially didn't want to try on-ear, but really, they were actually very comfortable. My ears got less hot, I didn't think it would matter, but it did; so a positive there.) I had high hopes based on the reviews. The sound was closer to the Sennheiser Momentum, but it sounded a little less like the music came through a metal can, and more open/real-life; just a little bit. The voices sounded warmer and more natural, less "thin". Strangely, with higher volumes, sometimes it didn't sound as good and it could become harsher sounding. It was a little better overall, though not drastically different. It clearly was not as good as the top two headphones below.
9. V-Moda M-100: I initially discarded this one based on its look, and the fact that it was labeled as a "basshead" pair, so I thought it would be like Beats by Dre, Bose, etc. Well, not at all. Bass to me was like the Sennheiser Momentum or KEF M500, or about very roughly comparable in volume and depth, some differences yes, but certainly not night and day. I didn't feel there was that much more (volume or frequency extension) than those two. In fact, because I felt there was clearly a lot more warmth and mid-frequencies in V-Moda, then the bass didn't seem exaggerated compared to the rest of the music (unlike Beats where you have what sounds like just a sub and tweeter so yes the bass is prominent). And it sounded a LOT more open/life-like/sound coming from a real room than the Momentum, and also more open than the KEF M500. It was like a mix of the natural sound stage/open and warm rich voices/mids of the Sony MDR1R, with the bass of the Momentum/KEF M500 and their detail and clarity. And no harsh treble/unpleasant brightness. So, to me, it was better at that time than all the above headphones, the best compromise and it sounded warm and more natural, not a "basshead" pair of headphones. BUT, two issues: they are not very comfortable; sure, they are solid metal and very sturdy, but not comfortable. I changed the earcup pads to the XL memory foam size and it was better, but not as good as for example the Sony or KEF in comfort level. Also, I now understand what reviewers mean by "forward" sound: it sounds more as if the singer of a song is right there next to your ears, as opposed to singing a little further in a room with some echo for example. Here the singer is just right next to your ear and so it also feels like you are listening to a pair of headphones, doesn't feel as real. Next, I also agree with reviews on this topic: it feels more tiring after a while to listen to the music because it sounds like there's a person singing or instruments playing right next to your ears the whole time.
10. Finally, fast forward a year, and the Philips Fidelio X2 is released. I initially did not consider its predecessor, the Fidelio X1, because of some issues and mostly because of the open design, and the fact that I may use it in a room where it can't leak sound in order not to disturb others around. But when I sorted high-end headphones in Amazon by average user review, at the time the Fidelio X1 was on top with the V-Moda M-100 and a couple of others...So with the release of the Fidelio X2, Philips apparently fixed some issues, and all user and professional reviews agreed that it was an audiophile-level headphone that was warm, with good bass, but balanced and clear. Sounds like a winner. Even though I found I did not agree with previous posted reviews (like: the Momentum is great and warm), I gave it a shot. I'm glad I did. I agree with the comments. Basically, it has all the positives of the V-Moda M-100 compared to the other headphones earlier in my review, and all the positive aspects of the other headphones I tried without the negatives:
a. The sound is less "forward" than V-Moda M-100, so it sound more like the singer and instruments are in a room where you are listening to live music, instead of right in front of your face/in your ears. Hard to describe, but this sounds most of the time more natural and is much less tiring. I'd describe it as thinking you are not listening as much to "headphones" but real music in the room.
b. The bass is good. A little less than V-Moda, but not drastically less. Reviews explain this is normal for an open headphone design. Using a Fiio amplifier that has a "bass boost" button that works well (unlike bass boost through software for example which I found deteriorates the music a lot), it gives as much bass as the VModa I believe. I like subwoofers, I have 10" and 12" at home, and I consider there is enough bass on the X2. It's deep bass, and it sounds good, without being too much. But if you hate bass, maybe it will be too much bass for you, although the frequency response curves show it's close to neutral, only a slight bump in the mid-bass and mids. On the contrary, if you only love bass at all cost above everything else, maybe it won't be quite enough.
c. The sound is much more pleasant and natural. I would describe it as less "harsh"/"hard" than the V-Moda M-100, but here unlike my previous comments on other headphones, I feel it's not due to a difference in the treble...so not sure how to describe it. It sounds less "digital" (as in compressed music with artifacts) and more "analog" (as in real-life voice/instruments).
d. Instrument separation is a little better. On parts of a song when lots of instruments are playing, I can hear each instrument nicely as opposed to a mix of loud noise (I'm exaggerating since the V-Moda M-100 was pretty good on this respect, although not necessarily as good as some other headphones I tried).
e. On some songs, there's not a huge difference with M-100. On others, yes. And for example, I plugged the headphones into a Yamaha professional digital piano (a high-end piano, not a keyboard): the V-Moda M-100 sounded better than most other headphones I tried, but still a little too digital/harsh/unnatural (except the Sony MDR1R which seemed to work well there). BUT when I plugged in the Philips Fidelio X2, I had to double-check I wasn't actually listening to the real piano speakers instead of the headphones....it was that much better. Natural, open, like a real piano. I asked others to listen to the headphones connected to the piano, and they agreed with me.
f. It's very comfortable. But it's heavier than the M-100, and quite heavy. But in the end more comfortable with the self-adjustable headband and the soft velour/memory foam pads. It's not meant for travel. It's only for sitting at home. Sounds leaks out...and in too (it's like fully transparent, so don't use it next to a fan or loud portable heater).
In the end, I still use the V-Moda M-100 when I need to use closed headphones, but whenever possible I use the better Fidelio X2, which has outstanding sound. My review was a little too long, but I hope it will be helpful to some.