This post contains the third round of my headphone impressions from the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, consisting of Audiofly, Marshall Headphones, Sennheiser, and more. For part 1 of my impressions, featuring Klipsch, Phiaton, Westone, and others, see here. For part 2, consisting of Audio-Technica, STAX, Beyerdynamic, and Polk Audio, see here.
Two years ago Audiofly debuted their first headphone lineup, which consisted of a several in-ear models ranging from entry-level to a $200 BA/dynamic hybrid, the AF78. I was initially excited for the AF78 but upon demoing it found the bass too intrusive. Last year the Australian company announced three new high-end IEMs, which it is augmenting with a fourth this year. Everything from packaging to ergonomics to sound has been re-designed from the ground up, and with good results.
I spoke at length with Iain Finlay, Audiofly’s product designer, while demoing the company’s new high-end earphones. I first tried the old AF78 model as a benchmark reference. As before, its bass-heavy dynamic driver dominates the sound and overall leaves me fairly cold. I was told the AF78 lacks a crossover, which is likely what’s to blame for its mediocre performance. Enter the AF120, Audiofly’s new dual-driver hybrid.
AudioFly AF120 & AF140
The AF120, a BA/dynamic hybrid with 2-way crossover, already sounded significantly better to me than the AF78, with bass that is more controlled and better clarity audible from the armature driver, but it didn’t impress me quite as much as the AF140. The AF140, a triple-driver hybrid with dual balanced armatures per earpiece, sounded more refined, with good detail resolution and warm and punchy but controlled bass. I quite liked the AF140 – among triple-driver hybrids it’s priced around mid-field and while I can’t make any conclusive claims regarding the sound based on only a short audition, it certainly is an earphone I’d like to hear again.
The construction of the new earphones lacks the metal accents of the previous AF78 model but the ergonomic plastic housings feel quite solid in the hand. The cable is twisted above the y-split and features reinforced cloth sheathing below it. AF120I and AF140I headset variants with microphones & 3-button apple remotes will also be available.
AF120 MSRP: $249.95 | Manufacturer’s page
AF140 MSRP: $349.95
AudioFly AF160 & AF180
The first BA-only monitors from Audiofly were also available for audition at CES. The $450 AF160 is a triple-driver model while the $550 AF180 joins the Westone 4 and Ultimate Ears 900 in the quad-armature club. Both earphones utilize detachable cables with MMCX (coaxial) connectors, which are becoming industry standard. They will ship with the stereo audio cable while the headset cable with mic & 3-button remote will be available as an optional accessory. Although I feel that at the $450/$550 MSRP both cables should be included, Audiofly’s entire new lineup is marketed in large part for stage use so excluding the smartphone cable makes some sense.
In my brief audition both earphones sounded pretty good – the triple-driver AF160 sounded a little strained in the bass region and didn’t reach quite as far down as the AF180 but the quad-driver sounded very good indeed, on-par with the best earphones I heard that day. I can’t say whether it’s as good as or better than Westone’s similarly-priced W4R model, but it certainly impressed me. Both the AF160 and AF180 had excellent clarity through the midrange and seemed energetic enough at the top end. I’d gladly give both units, especially the AF180, another try.
AF160 MSRP: $449.95
AF180 MSRP: $549.95
Audiofly made several other product introductions at the show, including their new ”Club Life” line, developed in collaboration with Tiësto. A mockup of their upcoming full-size headphones was available as well, and while it was not yet ready for demo, the metal construction exuded luxury. It’s probably one of the best-built headphones I’ve ever come across, and makes it very clear that Audiofly is not cutting any corners.
All in all, though Audiofly’s booth design very unfriendly towards those wanting to have a listen with their own sources and eartips, I’m very grateful to Iain for bearing with me and letting me try each of these earphones on my own terms. I especially enjoyed the AF140 and AF180 models, which receive a “Best of CES” distinction. One thing is certain – my second experience with Audiofly earphones was far more positive that my first, and I very much look forward to future Audiofly releases.
I stopped by the WeSC booth on my way over to Zound Industries. WeSC, pronounced “We.S.C”, brands itself as an “everything” company. Their focus is definitely not limited to headphones – there’s also clothing, accessories, and even footwear. Nonetheless, they had several headphones on display and of course I inquired which was the best-sounding. I was directed to the $120 Cymbal model.
The Cymbal is the company’s flagship headphone, an on-ear made largely out of plastic. It felt solid in the hand, reminding me of the UrbanEars Plattan, but the sound was less than impressive. It was a bit bassy, but mostly just muddy and lacking in detail resolution. The design is utilitarian but lacks some of the refinement I like to see in headphones priced above $100. The Cymbal does have a cool spring-loaded clip that fixes the headband in place, ensuring that the headband length settings are preserved when you fold up the headphones and store them away. It’s a nice touch, but not something that justifies the $120 MSRP.
MSRP: $120 | Manufacturer’s page
Molami is one of four headphone brands under Zound Industries, alongside UrbanEars, Coloud, and Marshall Headphones. Stockholm-based Zound Industries’ mission statement is to make electronics fashionable, and they’re certainly doing that. UrbanEars, perhaps the best-known arm of the company, popularized monochromatic headphones with their Plattan model a few years back. Available in a myriad of colors, the Plattan was the first of a large wave of such designs. Coloud is the “budget” brand, with less expensive models that are not too different in design from their pricier counterparts but in my experience lag behind in features and materials. Marshall Headphones is the audio-inspired brand, licensed from the iconic British amp manufacturer of the same name.
And then there’s Molami. Molami headphones are designed for women and are as much fashion accessories as they are listening implements. I tried the on-ear Plica model and the higher-end, full-size Pleat.
Molami’s new on-ear headphone took me by entirely by surprise – it’s less expensive even than the company’s earbud model and sounded rather good – nicely balanced with a slight warm tilt. I thought the treble may have been a touch soft, but it went well with the overall signature. The headphones are also very lightweight and comfortable, and I quite liked the look – the Plica boasts a rather conservative design that can almost be called “unisex”. At $99 I wouldn’t mind giving these a longer listen.
MSRP: $99 | Manufacturer’s page
Unlike the small and relatively inexpensive Plica, the full-size Pleat was decidedly uninspiring at $300. While very unique-looking and solid in construction, the Pleat sounded worse than the entry-level model, offering up more bass but less clarity. This one seems to be more of a fashion item.
MSRP: $300 | Manufacturer’s page
Another Zounds Industries brand, Marshall should by all indications be the audio-oriented leg of the company’s headphone effort. I’ve reviewed the original Marshall Major in the past and thought it sounded mediocre, but still wanted to try the new Monitor model.
The Monitor was tucked away in a corner of the rather dark Marshall booth, but even there it looked and felt impressive – a compact, folding over-ear headphone with a similar footprint to the classic Sony MDR-V6. It’s certainly built solid, and felt comfortable on the head. The sound of the over-ear Monitor is better than that of the on-ear Major, but still not very impressive to me. It wasn’t bad-sounding, but seemed bassy, warm, and lacking in treble energy. The Monitor boasts removable audio filters underneath the earpads, however, and it was unclear which of the two available configurations the demo set was in, so there is definitely a chance the headphones can be improved.
MSRP: $199.99 | Manufacturer’s page
The Sennheiser booth had a hi-fi listening room, as in previous years, featuring the HD650, HD700, and HD800, as well as the IE 800 in-ears I’ve already reviewed over at InnerFidelity. I didn’t bother taking down impressions as I’ve heard all of these multiple times already. The HD800 remains my favorite of the bunch but didn’t sound quite as impressive this year after my visit to the STAX booth.
Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear
The Momentum on-ear is a compact and exquisitely-crafted headphone. I absolutely love the aesthetic of these, as well as all of the available color options, and while it doesn’t fold, it still seems like an exceedingly convenient on-the-go option. However, though these are said to utilize the same drivers as the Over-Ear Momentum I tried afterward, they did not sound as good to me – not as balanced and lacking a bit in the treble energy department. The fit was also a little less comfortable, as the earcups did not contour my ears nearly as well as those of the over-ear. The lack of a great seal probably affected the sound, but whatever the reason I’d pay the price difference to go up to the larger Momentum.
MSRP: $229.95 | Manufacturer’s page
Sennheiser Momentum Over-Ear
These were truly impressive – I love the fit, the construction, and the design of the over-ear Momentum model. Pretty much everything about them just screams “well-designed portable headphone”. The sound is also very impressive – a little warm but clear and articulate. It sounded more balanced than the on-ear version, and since neither headphone folds up wouldn’t be much more cumbersome on the go, either. This is the best portable headphone I tried at the show, though I couldn’t get a good feel for Sony’s MDR-1R and 10R models due to excessive background noise in the Sony booth.
MSRP: $349.95 | Manufacturer’s page
Sennheiser HD8 DJ
Sennheiser also released a new line of DJ headphones this CES and I tried out the flagship HD8 DJ model. The build quality of these headphones is extremely solid, with plenty of metal used in their construction, and the innovative rotating joints ensure that the wearer has a lot of freedom orienting the cups – certainly a great detail for DJs. The sound was clear and dynamic, with plenty of bass. Unfortunately this part of the Sennheiser booth had some background noise so it was hard to gauge whether it would make as good an audiophile model as the similarly-priced Momentum – I’m leaning towards “not quite”. Still, a very impressive headphone, especially in terms of build quality.
MSRP: $389 | Manufacturer’s page
This is one booth I wasn’t planning on visiting but it was completely empty as I walked by so I decided to demo their decent-looking over-ear model. I only had time to snap a pic of their decidedly derivative (Yurbuds, anyone?) sports earphone poster and plug one of the demo sets into my mp3 player before being told that I needed permission to demo the headphones (which were on a demo stand), and said permission had not been given. This had not been an issue at all in ANY other booth at the show. I didn’t take down the model of the headphones I tried, but they weren’t worth the bother.
The iLuv booth was huge but featured their headphones quite prominently, so I decided to have a look. I demoed the ReF in-ear and on-ear models, which are meant to be the company’s flagship headphones, as well as an entry-level set.
iLuv Neon Glow
The Neon Glow is an entry-level in-ear with a glow-in-the-dark cable that iLuv debuted at this year’s CES. It is available in a multitude of colors as well as with a 3-button remote for Apple devices or 1-button remote and analog volume control for Android and other smartphones. The non glow-in-the-dark Neon model has been around for more than a year and runs less than $15 on amazon. For $20 these sounded plenty decent – bassy, but less muddy than many considerably more expensive headphones I tried at the show. I don’t think they can beat my favorite budget buds, the Philips SHE3580, but nonetheless I thought their performance was good enough for the price.
MSRP: $19.99 | Manufacturer’s page
iLuv ReF In-Ear and On-Ear
iLuv’s flagship in-ear and on-ear models are both called ReF. In terms of design the on-ear model looks pretty generic but differentiates itself with a pretty cool canvas/denim outer finish. The in-ear is more unique but I still didn’t think its design was particularly noteworthy. Considering that the on-ears run $65 on Amazon and the in-ears are less than $40, both sounded pretty decent. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them based on sound but as a well-made and pretty cool-looking set for kids I prefer the ReF on-ear to many other brands, such as the popular UrbanEars Plattan and the pricier but somewhat similar-looking WeSC Cymbal.
Sony’s booth, as always, was enormous and filled with all kinds of tech gizmos. Unfortunately this year they did not have a dedicated headphone section like they did when the XBA series of Balanced Armature earphones was introduced. The only headphones made available were the MDR1R and MDR10R, and those were only there to demo other Sony equipment. I still managed to try them with my own mp3 player and they sounded quite good indeed, but the background noise levels in the Sony booth were extremely high so it was unclear just where their performance would fall in a quiet environment.
Sony also had their new Audiophile music player, the NWZ-ZX1, on display but unfortunately it was locked in a glass case and could not be removed for an audition. It was impossible to change the track or try out the UI, so while I did listen to it with the MDR1R Sony had hooked up, I did not gleam any useful impressions short of the fact that it’s a nice-looking player that’s way slimmer than an iBasso DX100. It has not yet been officially released in the US but is already available on amazon from Japanese sellers.
The Kicker booth was a triple whammy – dark, so that it was difficult to take pictures; empty, so that it was impossible to ask questions; and loud, so that it was tough to get a good impression of their headphones. I still tried two of their models – the over-ear Cush and the new on-ear Vapor.
The Cush is not particularly noteworthy – I have tried this model before at a Costco store, if I am not mistaken. For $60 it’s okay – a pretty well-made, though mostly plastic, full-size DJ headphone with plenty of bass and a noticeably muddy sound. For those who just want a full-size set with a ton of bass I think this is a way better value than, for example, Beats Studios, but it is simply not tuned for audiophiles.
MSRP: $59.95 | Manufacturer’s page
Approaching the Vapor I immediately thought that it was a remarkably good-looking headphone with a pretty unique design. The trapezoidal earcups look sharp and the metal accents add a bit of class, especially next to the plasticky Cush model. It felt very solid in the hand, and yet quite lightweight. It also had an interesting sonic character – it wasn’t as muddy as the Cush model but had pushy and very intrusive upper bass that made its presence known far too often. Perhaps this was a prototype model but in any case the overly punchy bass ruined what was otherwise a decent-sounding, well-built, and very good-looking on-ear headphone.
MSRP: $219.95 | Manufacturer’s page
That’s it for round three of our CES 2014 headphone coverage. Round 4, which includes Scosche, MEElectronics, Motörheadphönes, German Maestro, and others can be found here.