Personal and professional head-worn listening devices are the hottest product category in audio. Scores of companies, from Behringer to Bose to Beats, compete on the consumer side while dozens of other manufacturers more familiar to audio pros vie for the attention of the musicians and engineers. The four units tested here fall into the latter category. They are the Blue Mo-Fi, Audeze EL-8, and Audio-Technica ATH-M70x headphones, and the UE Capitol Remastered in-ear-monitors just released at Winter NAMM. Each brings its unique spin to your ears, and because of design differences, this review is not a one-to-one comparison. Each product is evaluated for comfort, fit, sound transference when the cable, headband, and ear cups are touched, weight, overall sound quality and, most important, how they can be trusted for critical listening.
My listening sources were raw WAV files cut in sessions at Blackbird Studio and professionally produced and mastered tracks. The playback systems were both personal and professional. On the personal side, I played finished tracks from my Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro. For the best possible quality, I listened only to Apple Lossless-encoded tracks through Audirvana Plus software, which can be configured to stop the Apple OS X background services potentially interfering with sound quality, and operates using 64-bit precision to eliminate information loss due to rounding errors. Audirvana Plus, without a doubt, beats iTunes playback quality. I also turned off the computer’s WiFi and Bluetooth to avoid any latency and other oddities. The last stop out of the software was an Emotiva Big Ego USB digital-to-analog converter. The Big Ego is an impressive DAC that is capable of playing back files up to 384 kHz, through the line, headphone and Toslink digital outputs. There are three filter options on the Big Ego; I set the unit to F1, which is a setting commonly used by other DACs.
On the pro side, I auditioned session tracks in Blackbird’s Studio I using Focal Trio 6Be monitors fed from Pro Tools, Avid HD I/O converters, and the headphone output of a Dangerous Monitor ST. After listening to the tracks from the Focals, I’d A/B them with the headphones to see how they stacked up against a full-range studio monitor as a reference.
Blue has been defining pro audio style for more than 20 years, and the Mo-Fi elegantly carries the tradition to headphones. Others have tried to bridge the gap between consumer and pro in the same product but none as successfully as Mo-Fi. It comes with two cables: a longer one with a ¼-inch plug for studio use, and a shorter version with a Play/Pause and Volume control near the headphone end. Both cables offer a sturdy and long plug that fits firmly into the bottom of the left ear cup. Also included is a hearty travel bag with a compartment for cables and a magnetic clasp that seals the top flap.
What sets Mo-Fi apart is a unique headband design that keeps the ear cups parallel and perfectly situated to the wearer/listener. The overall experience when wearing the Mo-Fi is that you are here to listen. They are very comfortable with generous padding on the ear cups that provide a significant amount of isolation from outside noise.
The weight is average at 16.4 ounces, and there is an acceptable amount of sound transference when the cable, headband and ear cups are touched. Extra features include a three-way rotary switch for passive, active and active-plus-bass operation, and confidence LEDs under the logos that show that the active modes are engaged and the battery is charged. The electronics are only active when the device is worn to save battery life. The Mo-Fi can be fully charged in about three hours and used for 12 hours before needing a visit to your local USB outlet.
I started the listening tests in passive mode, and the range of these headphones is impressive. While not completely flat, there is a musical and subtle bump in the lower midrange frequencies that make drums and bass sound punchy. This is not a “hyped” sound but an acceptable amount of forwardness in this range. The high- and low-end frequencies are as extended as you’d expect in a headphone and evenly balanced. Like all transducers, there is a learning period where your ears decide what can be trusted, but after spending some quality time with the product, I can say that listening to the Mo-Fi would be an excellent way to check a mix before printing.
Jumping to the Active mode provides quite a boost in level, and the user should be wary. The first level Active mode is excellent, taking the same quality up in volume without changing the balance. This would be an excellent way to listen from a portable source where you could bring down the volume of your smartphone, saving the battery and relying on the Mo-Fi to do the heavy lifting. The Active Plus was way overhyped in the low end and more in line with popular consumer headphones.
The Mo-Fis are easy to like; they are musical, give a full-range listening experience, and offer quality and extras unheard of in this price range. Their isolation and quality would make them an able studio headphone in the control room and for tracking and overdubs, while they also excel as a portable listening device for personal use. It’s hard to find a headphone that wears this many hats in such comfort and style, and all so very well. As with many of their mics, preamps and other products over the years, Blue has made a statement with the Mo-Fi that should wake up the category.
PROS: Sonically stellar performance. Comfortable, well built. Great carrying bag.
CONS: Switching from Passive to Active mode may cause dangerous exposure to SPL.
The ATH-M70x is incredibly light (weighing 9.9 ounces) and comfortable. The soft ear cups fit nicely over the ear, and the top of the inside of the headband is wide and well padded. The cable locks into the bottom of the left transducer with a twist—a nice touch. The product ships with three cables: coiled and straight that stretch to 9.8 feet, and a third for portable listening where you only need to stretch between the headphones and a pocket or backpack (3 feet, 9 inches). Also included is a sturdy and portable zipper case that houses the headphones, cables and included screw-on ¼-inch adapter.
The listening experience when wearing these headphones takes a bit of getting used to. The frequency balance of the ATH-M70x leans more toward a headphone that would be used for overdubs and tracking with a full band, and nothing like a full-range experience that some other headphones offer. The upper-midrange frequencies are very much forward, overshadowing the midrange and low frequencies. While not unpleasant, it’s a shock to jump between speakers and these headphones.
Some of my listening sessions were tracks recorded at 96 kHz with artist John Stoddart and a full band comprising drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, horns, and lead and background vocals. Wanting to get an idea of how the M70x stacked up against a full-range system, I A/B’d them against Focal Trio 6Be monitors, which can jump between a full-range three-way to a two-way system with more limited bandwidth. The M70x provided a starkly different image than the speakers in both two-way and three-way mode, with the upper midrange and highs coming in much hotter. While this may be a way to expose what’s going on above 2 kHz, it is not something I would trust for mixing.
That’s not to say the ATH-M70x doesn’t have its niche. These would excel as a studio headphone for tracking and overdubs where pocket-defining elements like a click track, hi-hat and snare drum would stand out even with a full band playing in the same room. If you’re looking for a personal headphone for studio use, the ATH-M70x may just be the one.
COMPANY: Audio Technica
PRICE: $299 (street)
PROS: Forward upper-midrange positions these as an excellent studio-tracking headphone.
CONS: Over-accentuated top end would be hard to trust for critical listening.
The open-back EL-8 headphones from Audeze bring a lot of specialized technology to the category. The 100mm Planar Magnetic Transducers are based around the company’s Fluxor technology, which doubles the flux density of the highest-grade neodymium magnetic circuits. This both reduces weight (16.2 ounces) and increases efficiency for use with portable devices.
The Uniforce diaphragm uses variable trace widths in the voice-coil that capture variations in the magnetic field within the magnetic gaps by equalizing the forces of the individual traces, creating a uniform driving force across the diaphragm surface. Also in play are Fazors, an acoustical element positioned on either side of the magnetic structure that extends frequency response, and improves high-end extension, phase and imaging, while reducing distortion. All this tech-talk is not just lip service; the EL-8s are stunning both sonically and ergonomically.
You have to wear the EL-8 to appreciate how they feel. Oversized ear cups fit well, giving you the experience of having your ear fully exposed while the transducer hovers just outside. If you’ve never experienced an open-back headphone, it brings a more speaker-like listening experience. A standard 3.5mm cable and ¼-inch TS adapter come in the box, but other options may be ordered including a balanced cable for Astell & Kern and other high-end players, or a balanced cable for PONO and Sony PHA-3. No matter the cable, the other end terminates to a left and right adapter that fits into the bottom of each ear cup. It all comes in a sturdy box with a magnetic clasp lid. Also included is a basic travel bag that closes with two locking drawstrings.
I first listened to Dori Caymmi’s “Amazon River” from Brasilian Serenata mixed by Mick Guzauski. I was the assistant on this project and know the work intimately from the ground up. Mick’s work here is some of his best. The band comprises vocals, strings, electric bass, and Dori’s nylon string guitar, so the range of instruments covers top to bottom very well. The Audeze EL-8 brilliantly rendered the full spectrum of the mix, especially at the extreme high end. Having the open backs makes for a more relaxed experience than closed headphones, which can suffer from SPL buildup inside the enclosure at higher levels. The EL-8s were well balanced across the spectrum, with stunning low end and the midrange tucked in at the perfect level. These are high-end ’phones and are the most like a speaker that I’ve experienced, with nothing out of place—very flat with no hype.
Next I listened to tracks from the Pro Tools rig and A/B compared them to the Focal Trio 6Be monitors. The Focals had more extension at the low and high ends with the front port and beryllium tweeters providing high-resolution out to the edges, but the mix translated well when I flipped over to the EL-8s, which carried a similar balance but just not the lower and higher octaves.
The EL-8s are eminently trustworthy headphones, and I would not hesitate to use them to make final mix decisions: Their flat response, weight, comfort, open-back design and size of the ear cups make wearing them over long periods effortless and never tiring. If you’re looking for an excellent set of headphones for pro or personal use and can afford it, these are the ones.
PROS: Flat frequency response. Speaker-like listening experience.
CONS: No portable carrying case.
Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered IEM
In-ear monitors have come a long way in a short period. Many new companies have popped up in recent years offering a range of custom or one-size-fits-all transducers for both personal and professional use.
Ultimate Ears, owned by Logitech, has a range of IEMs with the company’s Reference Series at the top. It was created in collaboration with the engineers at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, which provided feedback on the designs during the development phase. The first in the series debuted in 2014, and they were an excellent product.
The latest version just released at Winter NAMM is the Pro Reference Remastered (UEPRR). They come in a satin lined box that holds a hockey puck–sized metal container with the transducers, integral cable, a cleaning tool and a 3.55mm-to-¼-inch adapter. Each unit has a unique number that is imprinted inside the lid of the container with instructions on how to return them to the owner if found, and collect a reward (no kidding).
After hearing both the original and UEPRR, the latter is a sizable leap in quality, and according to UE’s Vincent Liu, it’s all about the tech. Recent developments in specialized tooling allowed UE to be able to control the diameter of the sound channel down to .1 mm. The UEPRR also employs a balanced armature driver that pushes the upper range of the monitors above 18 kHz.
I’m a cyclist, and wearing IEMs is much like wearing cleats on a road bike. There’s a period when being locked into close proximity with the machine causes a bit of a panic. But once you get used to the intimacy afforded by IEMs (or cleats), you’ll never go back or doubt them again. On first listen, I was stunned at how accurate the UEPRRs were at both the bottom and top end of the frequency range. Where I had to EQ the original UE reference monitors to get them where I liked them, I needed none of that with PRRs. Everything is in place, with a slight and musical bump at the bottom end, which is surprising since balanced armatures don’t reproduce low-end as well as a dynamic transducer that moves more air.
I listened to familiar material using both systems mentioned in the opening paragraph and was impressed every time. The realism and even frequency response were stunning. But what shines is what IEMs do best: They give you the best perspective on panning and stereo image of any head-worn transducer. It’s all about the isolation (-26 dB), lack of room interaction, and the fact that the drivers are in your ear, not outside the pinna.
There’s no doubt that the UE Pro Reference Remastered monitors are expensive, more than some speakers. But if you’re looking for the best there is in an IEM that brings you an unparalleled and trustworthy listening experience, you should consider the UEPRR at the top of your list.
COMPANY: Ultimate Ears
PRODUCT: Pro Reference Remastered
PROS: Accurate, full-range listening experience.
CONS: Price may be out of reach for some.