Brief: First on-ear headphones from China-based smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi, who have already brought us the excellent Piston 2 in-ear earphones
Frequency Response: 20-20,000 Hz | Impedance: 32 Ω | Sensitivity: 100 dB SPL/1mW
Form factor: on-ear / over-the-ear | Space-Saving Mechanism: Collapsible
Cord: detachable dual entry (2.5mm connectors), 4.5ft (1.4m) length, 1-button remote and mic
Accessories: hard carrying case, soft pouch, airplane adapter, ¼ (6.3mm) adapter, and two sets of earpads
Build Quality (9.5/10): The Xiaomi Mi Headphones are quite unique in that they can be converted from supraaural (on-ear) to circumaural (over-ear) by simply swapping between the two sets of factory-supplied earpads, which twist to lock in place. The earcups are machined aluminum with metal mesh grilles, and have a decidedly Grado-like aesthetic – except that metal Grados cost upwards of $250. The earpads are of excellent quality and there is ample padding on the headband as well. Hinges below the headband allow the Mi Headphones to collapse for storage and transport.
The cord is detachable, but dual-sided, with a recessed 2.5mm connector on each earcup. It is well-made – TPE above the y-split and nylon-sheathed below. The y-split is also where the microphone and single-button remote control are located. One minor issue I found is that during active use, the cloth-covered bottom portion of the cable carries microphonics (cable noise) into the microphone, which can affect voice transmission quality for the other party.
On the whole, the Mi Headphones are well-made all around – many of the parts are metal, and those that aren’t are made of heavy plastics, giving the headphones a very solid feel. What impressed me even more, though, is the superb attention to detail – for instance, the cable connectors have raised L/R markings, but there’s also color-coding on both the connectors and their jackets, as well as the corresponding jacks on the headphones. The inclusion of both a hard zippered case and soft pouch is welcome, too.
Comfort (8.5/10): The soft padding on the earcups and headband, together with moderate clamping force and pivoting earcups, make the Mi Headphones comfortable for hours in on-ear mode – more so than, for instance, the V-Moda M-80 or Sennheiser HD25. The over-ear pads are large enough to be fully circumaural, but may be a touch shallow for large ears. Still, for a portable headphone, they are among the best I’ve tried.
Isolation (7/10): The Mi Headphones are designed to look like open headphones, but the grilles are largely decorative. Inside, the earcups are heavily damped and more akin to semi-open – or maybe even closed – headphones. Combined with the soft, well-sealing on-ear pads, this leads to very decent noise isolation and low leakage. They may not be the perfect set to use at the library, but for everyday applications they are equivalent to small closed-back headphones.
Sound (7.5/10): The two different pad options of the Mi Headphones change more than just the fit and look of the headphones – swapping the pads also changes the sound pretty drastically. The on-ear pads have a bassier sound with a more pronounced “v-shape”, meaning the bass and treble sound elevated compared to the midrange. This tuning is punchy and fun, and easily competes with consumer-class on-ears like the original Beats by Dre Solo and the Monster DNA On-Ear.
The over-ear pads provide a less bassy sound, reducing both impact and depth compared to the on-ear configuration. Bass bloat is also diminished slightly. Perhaps the over-ear option was tuned for less bass on purpose, in order to compete with more balanced, higher-end full-size headphones. In any case, the lower bass emphasis draws more attention to the forward upper mids and prominent lower treble of the Mi Headphones, so the over-ear tuning ends up sounding like a more neutral Monster DNA PRO – not that the $280 Monster flagship is poor company for Xiaomi’s freshman headphone effort.
The v-shaped sound signature of the Mi Headphones means they have more bass punch and power compared to flat/reference sets. For instance, there is more of both depth and impact compared to the Sennheiser HD428 and HD429 (much more with the Mi Headphones in on-ear mode). It’s definitely not a basshead level of slam and rumble, but casual listeners won’t be left wanting for bass.
The punchy bass of the Mi Headphones gives them a warmer tone and more full-bodied sound compared to sets like the Sennhesier HD428, but also a little less clarity. The mids of the HD428 – and other flatter headphones – seem more forward in comparison, thanks to lack of bass and treble emphasis. Clarity is similar to the V-Moda M-80, though the M-80 is even warmer, smoother, and more forgiving (significantly more expensive, too). In over-ear mode, the Mi Headphones lose some of that warmth as the upper midrange/lower treble emphasis becomes more audible.
At the top, the Mi Headphones can be a tiny bit harsh, especially compared to notably smooth-sounding sets such as the M-80. Even the similarly-priced HD429 can sound more refined, albeit less lively and dynamic. However, the treble energy does help the Mi Headphones maintain a solid all-around presentation for an on-ear portable headphone – neither too forward nor too laid-back, and no more congested than the M-80.
Xiaomi Piston 2 (on-ear setting)
Note: normally I try to avoid IEM vs headphone comparisons, but as the Piston 2 is one of my recommended IEMs, this one was unavoidable.
There’s no denying that the Piston 2 is a bass-heavy earphone. Even in their bassier on-ear configuration, the Mi Headphones are more balanced, with bass that is less intrusive and more controlled. The Piston 2 does have slightly better bass depth as a result of its more powerful low end, but the Mi Headphones are not at all lacking in punch. A slightly greater amount of upper midrange lift on the Piston 2 helps maintain its clarity despite its more bloated bass. Overall, the two Xiaomi models aren’t vastly different – both pursue v-shaped sound signatures with punchy bass and prominent treble – but the shallower bass and cooler overall tone of the Mi on-ear do result in substantially different voicing for the on-ear model.
Sennheiser PX100-II (on-ear setting)
I wanted to compare the new Xiaomi to one of the few portable, supraaural, open-back headphones still on the market, and the $70 PX100-II was the closest in price I could get my hands on. While the Mi Headphones turned out to not be nearly as open-backed as they look, the Sennheiser unit still made for an interesting comparison. The PX100-II offers up less bass than the Xiaomi (in the on-ear configuration) and lacks a little in the way of dynamics. The Mi is more v-shaped, with a more powerful – but also slightly more boomy – low end. It is also brighter and clearer, with more energetic and crisp treble, resulting in a more exciting and lively sound. The PX100-II tends to be more forward in the midrange, and yet surprisingly is not any clearer or more intelligible. It is smoother, however. The presentation of the Sennheiser unit is a little more laid-back, but, thanks in part to the darker tone, not any more airy or spacious.
Sennheiser HD25-1 II (on-ear setting)
This pricier, closed-back on-ear model from Sennheiser made for a much better sound signature match for the Xiaomi than the PX100-II. The HD25 and Mi Headphones (in on-ear mode) both follow v-shaped signatures with punchy but relatively well-controlled (slightly more so on the HD25) bass and relatively bright upper mids and treble. The Mi does have more bass and a warmer overall tone, trading off some clarity, while the HD25 is less muffled despite its recessed midrange. The Sennheiser unit also boasts a similar-sized but slightly more convincing soundstage and sounds more crisp and refined than the Xiaomi – but not to the extent one may expect for a two-fold price increase.
Monster DNA Pro (over-ear setting)
Monster’s full-size DNA Pro was the only headphone I found that made for a good match for the Mi Headphones in their over-ear configuration. It is a bright headphone, notable for its forward upper midrange. The Mi Headphones have less presence there, but follow a similar tuning scheme and have similar voicing. The Mi over-ear has slightly more boosted bass, which gives it a warmer – and arguably more neutral – tone but also sacrifices a bit of clarity. The bass of the DNA Pro is noticeably less powerful, but also tighter, and the brighter Monster unit sounds more analytical on the whole.
Value (8.5/10): The Xiaomi Mi Headphones – the company’s first non-in-ear headphone release – succeed in offering very solid value for money. The sound is punchy and energetic, and changes (mostly in amount of bass boost) between the on-ear and over-ear pads. What impressed me more than the solid performance, however, is the superb design and construction. Whatever they may lack in absolute sonic bang/buck compared to the company’s sub-$20 Piston 2 in-ears, the Mi Headphones make up for with a combination of features unique to their price point, including the convertible on/over-ear design, headset functionality, extensive accessory pack, detachable cables, and outstanding build quality.