This year I had an opportunity to stop by the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which ran Jan. 7-10. It was excellent, as always, though once again I didn’t have much time to take in the sights and sounds of one of the world’s largest electronics showcases. My goal was simple – to demo as many new headphones as possible in order to get a feel for which ones are worth looking at in depth.
Quick listening impressions are by no means the final word on anything, but I can usually get a good feel for how something sounds with just a few of my favorite test tracks. For the show I dug out my old Cowon J3 (picked over the HiFiMan HM-901 for portability and ease of use, though I did bring the 901 as a backup in case I got to do some sit-down listening in a quiet environment). I also brought along the VSonic GR07 In-Ear Monitors ($179) and the Unique Melody Miracle Custom In-Ear Monitors ($950) for quick comparison purposes.
I’ll be breaking my impressions up into several posts, organized by manufacturer and in approximate chronological order, and posting them as I write them up.
This is part 1 of our CES 2014 Headphone Coverage, featuring Klipsch, Phiaton, Westone, and more…
Bell’O’s was the first booth I stopped at. I tried their first in-ear earphone a couple of years ago but wasn’t impressed enough to get a review unit. This time they had four new models available to demo – an over-the-ear, two on-ears, and some sports IEMs.
Bell’O Digital BDH851 Over-Ear Headphones
The BHD851 is a newly-announced model, and not yet listed on Bell’O’s website. Truthfully, all of the Bell’O sets sounded pretty muddy, but the BDH851 over-ear was the best of the bunch. It also boasts interchangeable plates that go on the outside of the earcups, with three included in the box in different colors. The faceplate colors vary depending on which base color headphone (black or white) you buy. Unfortunately, while I commend Bell’O for pricing their flagship at a reasonable $130, I just don’t see it competing with the similarly-priced Creative Aurvana Live! 2.
Bell’O Digital BDH821 On-Ear Headphones
The BDH821 on-ear isn’t a CES 2014 release but is still new to me. I thought it was rather well-made and felt more solid in the hand than the over-ear due to its smaller size. It looks very nice, too, with the Bell’O logo in shiny silver offset against the plastic earcups, and is available in five different color combinations.
The enhanced-bass sound, however, again was disappointingly lacking in clarity. It’s true that these are not very expensive and a few years ago the audio quality would have been more than acceptable for the price, but the amount of options in the past few years has made even this lower-priced segment competitive. As with the over-ear model, the best I can say is that they are not offensive for the price, but they are clearly not geared towards the audiophile market.
MSRP: $49.99 | Manufacturer’s page
Bell’O Digital BDH806 On-Ear Headphones
The BDH806 is the other new CES 2014 release from Bell’O. It’s an on-ear unit and comes in black and white. It is arguably even better-looking than the BDH821 and again feels good in the hand considering the price. All in all, they are similar to the 821 model, and a better value at $25, but still not clear-sounding enough to get me interested.
Bell’O Digital BDH754 Sport In-Ear Headphones
Bell’O’s first Sport in-ear is designed with a semi-rigid rubbery earhook and comes in black and black/green color combinations. I thought the black/green ones looked pretty sharp, but I’m generally not a fan of rigid earhooks, and this one is no exception. To me it seems flexible “memory wire” or a soft earhook like that used by the new RHA MA750 earphones are much better solutions. As with the Bell’O on-ear sets, the in-ears sounded pretty muddy. I don’t see these competing with my favorite sub-$50 sport set, the Meelec M6.
MSRP: $59.99 | Manufacturer’s page
Klipsch had a couple of earphones on display, including the ceramic X7i and the new X11i. The X11i was confirmed to be identical to the old X10i, which I reviewed here, but with an updated appearance and an improved cable. The headphone is now silver instead of copper-colored, and the new cable is claimed to be reinforced for durability. I would have loved to try both of the in-ears but neither was available for audition. However, an X10 with an improved cable sounds very promising. I loved the design and comfort of the X10, and while the sound was a little too biased towards bass and away from treble for my liking, they are still very unique earphones that I’ve recommended on numerous occasions.
Klipsch Status Over-Ear Headphones
Klipsch did have the new Status over-the-ear headphones available for audition, as well as their new gaming headphone lineup. I didn’t bother with the gaming sets but I did listen to the Status at length.
I felt that the Status was above average among the headphones I heard at CES but for the price still a little disappointing. The sound quality did not keep up with the Sennheiser Momentum or the Sony MDR-1R, both of which sounded more natural and realistic to me. It’s not unusual for Klipsch headphones to have some coloration, but in this case the tonal character left me pretty cold.
Klipsch also had some of their horn speakers playing in their booth, which sounded very good indeed, especially after auditioning the Status. I really hope that someday Klipsch may be able to release a headphone that sounds more like their horn speakers, but unfortunately the Status isn’t it.
MSRP: $249.99 | Manufacturer’s page
Wicked Audio was close to the Klipsch booth so I stopped in for a quick listen. This year at CES Wicked debuted their upcoming Revolt headphones.
Wicked Audio Revolt
The Revolt is a wood and metal headphone with retro styling. Indeed, the appearance of the Revolt did remind me of an old studio mic. The Revolt units at the show were prototypes so the final look and feel may yet change, but the current version felt a little cheap in the hand, with a fair bit of play in the metal structure as well as some rather sharp-feeling parts. On the head the headphones felt pretty comfortable and the sound is surprisingly balanced – unlike 90% of the sets I heard at the show, these don’t have overblown bass. Unfortunately at $200 they are still average at best – clarity is mediocre and I thought they lacked dynamics and treble energy.
However, the Revolt has a trick up its sleeve – when the headphones are released in the spring, they will have built-in DSP by Bongiovi Acoustics. The DSP will be powered by a built-in, rechargeable lithium ion battery and enabled or disabled as necessary via a toggle switch. Battery life is said to be above 10 hours on a single charge. Without the DSP, the headphones sounded average, with little in the way of dynamics and average clarity, but rather neutral in tone and with well-controlled bass. With DSP enabled they actually sounded somewhat worse to me – the DSP setting seems to apply a “loudness” EQ curve, boosting the bass and treble, and makes them sound more like Beats. It seemed to add a bit of distortion in the bass region and threw the overall tonality too far off-neutral for my liking. Considering that these are a prototype, I think there is hope for them yet – some tweaks to the construction and a re-tune of the DSP for less extreme bass enhancement would bring these closer to earning their $200 price tag.
I’ve always been a Phiaton fan – while the design of some Phiaton headphones may be polarizing, there is a lot of attention paid to the look and feel of their products, especially with respect to materials, which I quite like. This year I got to try the MS430 and MS500 models. Phiaton also had the Moderna MS200 earphones available, which I have already in my possession but which probably won’ t get a full review due to having average (for $120) audio quality.
Phiaton Fusion MS 430
These on-ear headphones are set apart from the competition in part by the carbon fiber inserts on their earcups, which are visible under a protective polycarbonate cap, akin to the MS 400 model I reviewed several years ago. The cable is detachable, which is always a plus, and the MS 430 features ambidextrous inputs (cable can be plugged into either the left or right eacup). It certainly isn’t the most lightweight supraaural headphone I tried at the show but for an on-ear unit seemed pretty comfortable.
The sound of the MS 430 is also rather good – clear and reasonably well-balanced, with good midrange presence and tight, punchy bass. For a headphone that looks as good as this one does, the $150 price tag and sound quality are both very promising, and the headphones are already available a bit below MSRP on amazon.
MSRP: $149 | Manufacturer’s page
Phiaton Bridge MS 500
Phiaton’s larger MS 500 model has a very unique design with a fat metal headband and triangular ear cups. It feels great in the hand and looks restrained, yet not at all boring thanks to the distinctive shape and bright red accents. As with the MS 430, the detachable cable can be plugged into either earcup. The sound is warm and a little boomy compared to the less warm MS 430 model. However, unlike so many other bass-heavy headphone, the MS 500 does not sound mid-recessed. That said, I did not like its sound as much as that of the cheaper MS 430.
MSRP: $269 | Manufacturer’s page
The Etymotic booth is always on my to-visit list. Devoid of unnecessary flair, it is staffed with some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry. I never feel like I know or care more about the company’s headphone products than the staff with Etymotic. This year I stopped by for a chat about the ER4PT, which has replaced the ER4S on amazon and some other online retailers. I was able to confirm that the ER4S is not discontinued, but simply replaced with the ER4PT on amazon to eliminate redundancy (as the ER4PT comes with a P->S adapter and can provide the sound of both the ER4S and the old ER4P).
This year Etymotic is introducing the new HD5 earphones, which are a version of the ETY-Kids I reviewed here now certified with an NRR (Noise Reduction Rating). The drivers and housings are identical to the ETY-Kids but the earphones come in a new yellow color and are packaged and marketed towards workplaces that require hearing protection. In my opinion “safe listening” earphones reaching more people is never a bad thing, and I hope the HD5 can reach an even wider audience than the ETY-Kids.
Retail price: $59 | Manufacturer’s page
The bright-yellow Jabra booth got my attention – I wasn’t planning to stop in but the eye is naturally attracted to colorful things. Ended up trying the on-ear Revo model.
The Revo comes in two flavors – wired and wireless. Both are said to sound the same but based on what I heard from the wired Revo I wouldn’t recommend either. These enhanced-bass headphones, like many others, sounded muddy and lacked sparkle, largely due to the overwhelming low end. On the upside, the construction feels extremely solid and they look quite stylish. The suggested retail price is $199 but can be found quite a bit cheaper on amazon. I still wouldn’t recommend it over the similarly-priced Phiaton MS 430 or one of many other worthwhile sets in this price range.
MSRP: $199 | Manufacturer’s page
Westone, as usual, had a live band in their booth, the sound of which was fed into their earphone demo stands. They only had two earphones on demo – the UM Pro 30 and the W40.
Westone UM Pro 30
The UM Pro 30 is an updated version of the old UM3X (which I reviewed here). There are no changes to the drivers or crossovers but the housing shape has been updated to match the rest of the new lineup and the earphones now use MMCX (coaxial) connectors for their detachable cables. The new housings are very nice – they are a little smaller compared to the old UM3X and feel great in the ear. The build is impressive as well – they don’t use the magnesium elements of Westone’s sports-oriented Adventure Series earphones but are still clearly built to last. The sound of the UM Pro 30 indeed was very similar to what I remember of the UM3X, and made these one of the best IEMs I heard at the show.
MSRP: $399.99 | Manufacturer’s page
I did not wait in line to try the W40 but confirmed that, as above, the drivers and crossovers remain unchanged compared to the W4 (which I reviewed here) and it’s said to sound the same, which is by no means a bad thing. Like the UM Pro 30, The W40 now has coaxial detachable connectors and improved ergonomics.
MSRP: $499.99 | Manufacturer’s page
Unfortunately the recently-announced W50 and W60 models were not available for demo.
The ES50 custom in-ear monitors were also confirmed to have no internal changes from the old ES5. Like the rest of the lineup they now use MMCX coaxial connectors but other than that should be identical to the ES5. I have an ES5 in my possession and it’s certainly an impressive earphone – the Westone semi-soft vinyl canals are extremely comfortable and the sound is warm and smooth, underpinned by powerful bass response.
Lastly, Westone had a prototype full-size headphone locked in a glass case. I was told that they were hoping to have it available for demo at the NAMM show later this month. Hopefully that indicates a likely release later this year. No word on pricing but it seems to be aimed at the higher end of the full-size market.
That’s it for my first set of impressions. For Part 2 consisting of Audio-Technica, Stax, Beyerdynamic, and others, see here.