Monday, May 27, 2013

It's On Amazon: V-MODA Crossfade M-100 Over-Ear Headphones

I've had several contenders in my quest for my perfect set of headphones:  AiAiAi TMA-1s and TMA-1 Studio (the former now eBay'd; the latter returned), California Headphone Company Silverados (my current work headphones), and Audio-Technica ATH-M50s (returned due to sibilance with my PC's stock audio - it might have done better with a FiiO E17 "Aspen" portable amp / DAC).  The current titleholder is V-MODA's M-100, a stylish, durable, and well-designed set of cans that, for me at least, hits the headphone sweet spot.

The first criterion in my headphone search was the over-ear form factor; I'd learned from the TMA-1s that on-ear is often less than comfortable for prolonged listening or gaming sessions.  This was the TMA-1 Studio's Achilles heel:  neither set of earpads made for a comfortable seal that at the same time preserved audio fidelity.  The ATH-M50's earcups were so shallow that wearing them felt like donning an oversized on-the-ear headset.  The CHC Silverado is perhaps the most comfortable headset I've owned - with spacious earpads that full encompass my ears - but their audio quality is middling at best.  So it was with lessons learned from these $100-$250 cans that I searched for a new mainstay set.

Consulting fora like, I eventually narrowed the field down to two contenders:  the Sennheiser Momentum and the V-MODA M-100.  The headphones' respective sound profiles lead me to lean toward the Momentum at first - I've liked Sennheiser's sound in the past and have never been much of a bass head - but a review from Tyll Herstens of InnerFidelity lead me to the conclusion that the Momentum's smaller earpads might leave me with the same crushed-lobe fit that made the ATH-M50 a nonstarter.   That, coupled with Tyll's enthusiastic treatment of the M-100 led me to purchase a pair from Amazon.

The $20 (and free shipping) that I saved quickly evaporated when I discovered that the M-100, much like the M-80 on-ear model, had the option of swapping out the stock "shields" for custom colors and engraved monotone images.  This option is included free with a direct purchase from V-MODA, but is also available for purchase separately for $45.  With my set already en-route, I laid down the extra cash, uploading one of my character sketches for the engraved design.  I think it turned out pretty well:

Aesthetics is definitely a factor in considering the M-100.  It incorporates V-MODA's signature hexagonal design, which is a subtle touch that doesn't hit you over the head with its uniqueness; it's there if you care to take note of it, but doesn't get in the way of the M-100's performance.  Materials are solid and feel well built, if not quite to battleship-like metal-and-leather-only specs of the CHC Silverado.  Finishing, though, is a touch above any other headphone I've owned.  A great example of the M-100's fusion of sleek design and solid functionality is in the hinge mechanism that allows you to fold the headphone into a more compact shape for travel.  The hinge could have easily been a structural Achilles' heel if not done right; instead, it's both sleek and sturdy, giving you the impression that other parts of the M-100 - such as the cord (which is removable and replaceable) - will wear away long before it will.

The M-100 comes with two cords of differing length; one is a 3-foot cord with built-in cellphone mic, the other is a 6-foot cord with a built-in audio splitter.  For me, these two cords are purpose-built for the two primary uses I have for my headphones:  as a set of cans for portable media devices like my cellphone and tablet, and a gaming / media headset for my desktop PC.  The mic on the shorter cord means I can answer calls while wearing the M-100, or even use it as a dedicated hands-free option.  The splitter on the longer cord allows me to keep the M-100 and my desktop speaker plugged in concurrently, eliminating the need to swap between the two as the need arises.

All these amenities are useful, but the ultimate criterion of any set of headphones is, of course, how they sound.  Compared to the "dark" profiles of the two AiAiAi TMA-1s, what I found to be an overly sibilant treble on the ATH-M50, and the OK-but-not-great sound of the Silverado, the M-100's sound profile is like a breath of crisp fresh air.  The added bass doesn't inhibit a non-bass-head's enjoyment; if anything, I'd agree with InnerFidelity's assessment that it makes the overall listening experience more fun and enjoyable.  If you've found other headphones with sound profiles aimed at studio reproduction too flat or tiresome, the M-100 may be the set you've been looking for.  Good looks, solid design, customization, and excellent sound make for a solid buy for anyone willing to pay a little over $300 for auditory satisfaction.

Monday, May 20, 2013

It's On Amazon: FiiO E17 "Aspen" DAC (Digital Audio Converter) Portable Amp

When you get into higher-end headphones (such as the GtB-recommended V-MODA Crossfade M-100s - It's-On-Amazon review forthcoming), the purchase of a solid DAC is usually not far behind.  Many serve as amplifier for 'phones that require more juice than a smartphone, laptop, or PMP can provide, or as a portable external sound card with USB connectivity.

FiiO is a Chinese company that has gained a reputation  in audio enthusiast circles as a solid manufacturer of portable amps and DACs, and their E17 (nicknamed "Aspen") is a strong entry-level contender poised just over the $100 mark.  The E17 is my first portable amp / DAC, so the comparisons I'll be making are between it and the stock sound card on my budget-built PC's ASUS P5K-VM motherboard, and the standard audio from my Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus tablet.

Having never used a DAC before, I can say that the E17's interface is very intuitive.  Connect it via USB, and it begins to charge.  It only took me a few moments after powering it on to figure out how to navigate the menu system, which includes the usual adjustment attributes like treble, bass, etc.  The device proved to be plug-and-play on my Windows 7 and Windows 8 systems.  The most challenging part of getting it to work was realizing that I needed to right click on the Windows Sound icon, bring up the "Playback Devices" window, and set the E17 as the default playback device.  After that, it worked like a charm.

As for the sound quality, I noticed a considerable bump in clarity switching my M-100s between my motherboard soundcard and the E17.  Using my obsolete-but-awesome Yamaha NX-A01 desktop speaker cube with the motherboard sound often resulted in background humming when I punched the NX-A01's built-in amplifier toward the maximum.  No such humming occurs when it's plugged in to the E17.  I didn't test how loud the speaker could get with both its own amp and the E17's augmentation - I'm a big advocate of listening to audio at reasonable levels - but it was able to get it as loud as I'd ever want it to be without any signs of distortion or interference.

The E17 also eliminated another gain problem I'd experienced with the stock audio:  doubly loud humming feedback whenever I attempted to use a line splitter to connect a speaker and headphones at the same time. As a result, I currently have the longer M-100 cord connected directly to the E17, and use its built-in splitter to connect to the NX-A01 at the same time.  I've encountered no appreciable drop in sound quality with this setup, which allows me to avoid having to swap out the connection every time I want to switch between speakers and headphones.

While certainly entailing a sizable investment at a MSRP of $139, the E17 "Aspen" delivers on sound quality and power.  It's a solid upgrade for anyone with quality speakers or headphones - or looking to purchase them - that are more than your stock audio components can handle.