The Mellifluous Sony MDR MA900 – Review

Sony, a leading manufacturer of Consumer electronics have for a while been overtaken in the highly competitive headphone market. I still have pleasant memories of my Sony MDR V6, an excellent headphone. Lately with the rise of niche companies such as Audeze, Hifiman and so on, Sony has been playing the catch-up game. They have been seeing success with the MDR1R and now the MDR-MA900 may be another shot in the arm for the giant.

Design/Build & Comfort

 The MA900 is “less headphone & more music”. The build is sparse, minimalist and does raise some doubts about durability. The magnesium alloy frame is the backbone holding the plastic enclosed lollipop drivers. The cable is nothing special and I never had issues with tangling. This headphone may not rank high on the build category but remember that it well makes up for it in comfort. Thankfully the MA900 was designed as a stay-at-home headphone and delicate handling should make it last for years.

The highlight (or delight) of the MA900 (apart from the sound) is the comfort. The MA900 disappears once the music starts! The clamping force is delicate, but the headphone sits comfortably on the head – the 70mm drivers cover the ear with ample space to breath! You can wear this headphone for hours and not feel the stress of something sitting on the head. I will confidently say that the comfort offered by the MA900 is unmatched by any headphone in this price range or even several times higher. Kudos to Sony!

Sound Impressions

As the review title suggests the MA900 has a sweet and lovable presentation. It is polite and smooth, yet has enough bite for an engaging but relaxing listen. Treble is well presented and is without any sibilance. The clarity in the treble is apparent since the rest of frequencies are well balanced. Comparing the MA900 to the HD650, the latter is definitely the darker sounding and colored headphone. The thick bass and smoky mids of the HD650 tend to take away much from the treble, not so with the MA900.Though the overall presentation of the MA900 slants to the warmer side, the treble presence is balanced to provide a good sense of detail and transparency. Some may feel the treble to be a bit too bright (compared to, say the HD650), but in my opinion it is just right! If my memory serves right it’s just like the HD600 tonally and is refreshing to listen to coming from the HD650.

 Mids are transparent, detailed and bring out the palpability without any bleed from the bass regions. I personally prefer the voices to be much more intimate than the MA900, which by the way is the saving grace for bad recordings. This also suits the general presentation style of the MA900 (SMOOTH!), and its wide genre compatibility.

Surprisingly good bass for a open headphone! The bass is with texture and speed in the upper and midbass regions. There is of course some amount of “boominess” in the bass but that is still forgivable for an open headphone. The whole “Bass lens” acronym had me worried but all’s good. This is by no measure a “bass-head can” but should satisfy most listeners looking for a good bass performance. The attack and punch of the lower frequencies are however slightly distant in the vast soundstage.

The sprawling “soundscapes” that the MA900 fleshes out is fabulous! This is also where the angled drivers do their magic, and magic it is! Better soundstage presentation in terms of size and accuracy are impossible to find in this price class and can only be experienced in models like the Hifiman HE500 & Sennheiser HD800.The other headphone with such a lavish soundstage that I have listened to is the AKG 240DF, then again it definitely not as musical nor easy to drive! As a design advantage, open headphones generally have a more wide and nautral soundstage. The MA900 in particular with its large 70mm driver, angled driver placement takes the open design to new highs.

Perhaps the biggest asset of the MA900 is its undemanding nature when it comes to other gear in its signal route. I listened to the MA900 through a Burson HA160 Headphone amp/DAC Magic, Macbook pro headphone output, Dell XPS M1530 headphone out, iPod Classic headphone out, iPod LOD to Fiio E11 & O2 headphone amp. Remarkably the overall presentation and much of the detail and clarity remains across the different gear. Yes, the Burson/O2 firmed up the impact and boundaries, the Fiio E11 could add some more warmth but they never altered the overall experience drastically. Good source material meant better clarity and definition, bad recordings (in my opinion) were not intolerable and the MA900 does a decent job here (though you may not be doing justice to this headphone!).I can whole heartedly recommend the MA900 as a single component music listening setup from a computer, AV receiver or any other source – it’s that good! Adding a DAC/lossless audio should provide a higher quality signal to the 70mm drivers for better detail retrieval.

Conclusion

The only thing going against the MA900 is that it is a very niche headphone! If you are a closed headphone enthusiast, then this headphone is out obviously (though you should give it a listen). Some listeners like the presentation to be a bit intimate, the MA900 however projects a large soundstage and therefore may not appeal to these listeners. The first few days of my listening sessions were unsatisfactory because of this very fact; the HD650 & HD600 creates a slight but perceivable sense of intimacy that is lacking with this headphone. As for competitors to the MA900, this budget is crowded with several good headphones like the Sennheiser HD598, Audio technica AD900x and even the Sennheiser HD600 if you can find it at a competitive price!

In spite of the above statements, there is no question in my mind that the MA900 is an excellent buy at the price and performance levels (as good as the HD600!). It goes well with most music genres and could become the “go-to headphone” for music lovers not wanting the hassle of having additional gear or heavy headphones. The Sony MDR MA series is available in India from Flipkart and other online stores and don’t forget to check flipit.com for discount coupons to save on your purchase.

 This post was sponsored by Flipit.com.

Review Gear:

Burson HA160 Headphone Amplifier/ DAC Magic DIY O2 Headphone Amplifier & Fiio E11 Amplifier
Lossless Audio/ 320 Kbps mp3/ 24-96 Hi-Res Files
Headphones: Sennheiser HD650

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Lasmex H75 Pro – It’s Sweet!

Over at HeadFi, fellow headphone nuts often dig out some of the best audio gear worth owning. Sometimes, the gear tend to be quite expensive and/or difficult to source (unless ofcourse one is prepared to make their wallet suffer !) but the Somic MH463 is neither!. Somic is a Chinese manufacturer of headphones and other associated communication equipment and are quite popular in that part of the world. The headphone is available on Ebay from sellers in both China and Hong Kong. I like shopping closer to home (saves time on shipping and customs procedures) and was on the look out for a dealer in Europe. That is when I came upon the Lasmex H-75 Pro, a rebranded version of the Somic MH463 sold in Europe by the Chinese OEM brand Lasmex. There do seem to be other branded versions of the MH463 available as well with some slight modifications in the cable and styling.

         Lasmex H-75 Pro

Build & Comfort

     At budget prices there is not much one can expect from headphone manufacturers. These budget headphones have to balance pricing and performance to be competitive but the Lasmex H75 Pros seem to have found a decent balance. They don’t look overtly “plasticky”, maintaining a reasonably reassuring build. The metal band that runs across both headphone frame is pretty sturdy and the remaining parts are made of tough plastic. A three year guarantee is greatly admirable and definitely helps the buyer to be more confident with the headphone, ofcourse this may depend on the rebranding vendor. The headband also seems to add considerable weight to the headphone, which makes it heavy over extended listening sessions The markings on the metal band help in making quick adjustments and are much appreciated by users like moi! The headphones have an impedance of 45 ohms and have a 50 mm driver. The large driver makes the headphone quite substantial to look at and most definitely also plays a role in the well resolved sound the headphone puts out (more on that later…). The headphone has an open type construction meaning, there is going to be leakage of music to the surrounding, the size and open nature of the H-75 Pro will mean you would ideally be using these indoors. A 3m cable terminating in a 3.5mm stereo plug with a 6.5mm adapter completes the Lasmex H75 Pro.The earpads cushions are unusually too soft and do tend to compress too much. Though that may not affect all, users like me (not small ears!) have comfort issues. The earlobe tends to rest on the hard plastic containing the drivers and causes comfort problems during extended listening periods. Yet another discomfort is  the sheer weight of the headphone itself! The plastic lining bearing the branding “Lasmex” covering the headband seems to be the culprit, you can always remove that to increase comfort and probably replace it with a third-party headband cushion.

Sound

The H75 Pro weaves magic with vocals! I had been listening to the HiFiman HE500 for a few months ago and then moved on since, I did not have the right amplifier and the H75 pleasantly reminded me of that headphone.Yes, the HE500 is in an altogether different league but the H75 does truly have a good, no Great (for the price!) presentation in the mids. Can’t wait to try it on with a tube amp, unfortunately don’t have one at the moment :-(. The headphone portrayed a very natural and sweet mid frequency presentation that is portrayed in an intimate manner than the bass and high frequencies, when supported by the Burson HA160 & the O2 amp the vocals were very good. Ideally, alternative, pop, vocal Jazz and other mid centric content shine with this headphone.Though when the volume is pushed beyond reasonable levels I did not notice some distortion in the mids. The performance of this headphone rests so much on this part of the sound that it is not as impressive with genres like dance, techno and electronic where not much attention is required in the vocals.

A beautifully resolved and airy presentation with the right amount of shine. The treble is definitely one of the strengths of the H75 pro. A very rich but untiring treble as observed in other higher end & expensive headphones. The amount of instrument separation and air in the high frequencies is just unheard of at this price point! Though the H75 does not beat the AKG K550 in the details  and the treble section, the H75 is definitely more “natural” sounding.The H75 Pro has just the right amount shine without making the listener feel strained. The clarity and resolution in the higher frequencies can be felt in several stage recordings and its also smoothes some treble peaks in bright recordings that were previously a bit difficult to listen to.

I procrastinated commenting on the H75 Pro’s bass for as long as I could. Coming from the HD650 it is quite difficult to get used to a presentation that does not put as much intensity and richness into the low-end. The bass on the H75 Pro is quite linear and neutral with some presence of sub bass as well. It does have enough quality, but definitely seems to lack  in midbass quantity for my tastes. This perhaps, has to do something with the presentation style that the headphone adopts. The beautiful mids in the foreground with clean and clear highs seem to demand a suitable amount of low-frequency (midbass) support to really anchor the presentation, unfortunately that’s where the Lasmex H75 pro let me down. One cannot plainly complain about the bass of this headphone, its does make itself felt when called for by the music, but feels slightly anemic.As mentioned before this observation could also be due to the time that I spent with the HE500/HD650 and somehow fixing that presentation as the standard to judge similarly voiced headphones.

The open nature of the headphones coupled with the excellent high end makes for a truly wonderful experience with vocals. The vocals provide more of a “sweetness” and may probably offer good pairing with amplifiers with a lush presentation style. The pace of the H75 Pro is again slightly faster than the HD650 making it a good accompaniment for most music styles. Though most music genres would benefit from a bit more weighty lower end, on the Lasmex H75 Pro it is all about mids!.

Final words..

The Lasmex H75 Pro or the Somic MH463 is a well executed headphone design with very little drawbacks. The comfort problem is something that would be a pain for some listeners, the lack of a slightly weighty bottom  may as well leave some listeners unsatisfied. Ofcourse, it is quite possible that the lower region of the sound spectrum has been restrained to suit the presentation style adopted by the headphone. The H75 Pro sure has the pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT) going for it which also makes the listening experience pleasurable. The H75 Pro is in my opinion as very niche headphone, but a very good one. Remember that in the comparisons above I have been talking about the HE500, HD650 and AKG K550 – these are high end products from top manufacturers,  talking about them in the context of the H75 Pro is itself great praise. No, that also does not mean that the H75 Pro bests all of them or is equally good! The H75 Pro aspires for exalted company and has the “sound sense” to match, if not the prowess. I can heartily recommend this headphone as a great match for vocal lovers and anybody who shares a craving for beautiful mids. The Lasmex H75 Pro retails for around 50 bucks and is a good headphone to have in an audiophile’s headphone collection. 

Tip! The Somic Ef 82 Mt is another offering that seems more appealing than the MH 463 in terms of sound, review coming up…..!

Review Gear

Cambridge DAC Magic – Burson HA160 – iPod Classic – Fiio E11 – DIY O2 amp – MP3 320 Kbps – 16/44 & 24/96 Lossless.

The Vaudio Headphone Bag!

If you spent anywhere above 100 bucks on your headphones (a fullsize headphone) then it’s probably worth getting some sort of protective bag while storing or transporting it. Granted most if not some headphone makers at that price range, supply a pouch or some sort of bag – but there are several that don’t! And some of these options are not very practical for everyday use! The Sennheisers, HD600 and 650 come with a well made box but its more for long term storage and is not an ideal setup for everyday use. Some of the lower end Sennheisers come with a carrying pouch which actually is ok for transport but doesn’t really do a good job in the safety/protection department. The AKG 701 comes with a stand or holder but no bag, the recent AKG K550 is no exception as well!

The (select) Beyer dynamic headphones come with a well made bag (shown below) that’s actually good for both storage and transport. You can buy it separately as an accessory for about 20 bucks, but the foam support doesn’t really fit all headphones. If you have the time and skill the foam can be cut out to accommodate your specific model.

Beyer Dynamic beyerdynamic-vinyl-bag-568708-600x600

A third-party headphone pouch or carrying bag like the UDG headphone bag costs around 30 bucks – a much more substantial investment in my opinion. I have seen one of these and they are well made and worth the price! But if you are looking for something cheaper (in price), here is my recommendation – Vaudio Headphone Bag. Available from Ebay for 10 bucks with free shipping from Thailand, this is a good quality product for the money.

The bag does not compete with the hard-shell type of carry cases, so don’t expect super tough durability but it had everything that a reasonably priced headphone bag should offer. The bag is spacious and can hold just about every full size headphone out there with the exception of the Stax perhaps! I have tried the Sennheiser HD650, HiFiman HE500 and the AKG K550, all were easy to carry in the Vaudio bag There is a decent amount of padding in the all around to protect from accidental drops and bumps. The handy carrying loop on top is very practical and provides a good grip to carry the bag around. The bag also comes with a shoulder strap that hinges onto two standard plastic loupe on either sides. I have carried it around in slight rain and snow, so far so good and yes, the material is mentioned as waterproof (though not very curious to test that!).

The Vaudio bag may not be the last word in protection and safety for headphones but it sure is a good way to carry and prevent dust that will eventually settle when the headphones are just lying around. It also doubles up as a bag for my E-PL1 and psp (not that I need another camera bag 😉  There are always eclectic choices for special style enthusiasts (provided they have the money) and don’t even get me started on Headphone stands!

PS: Just noticed how similar it is to the Headroom Headcase bag!

Creative Aurvana Live! Review

The Creative Aurvana Live! is a closed headphone that I recently had the opportunity to try and I believe that it is definitely one of the best ” value for money” purchase as well as an excellent headphone at the sub 100 cost.

The Creative Aurvana Live! is an offering from the Aurvana range of products that Creative offers (as we’ll have it for my typing comfort sake!) is a deceptively simple looking pair of headphones. The glossy earcups are the first thing that will strike you out of the box, that also means that it is going to be a fingerprint magnet. The headphone does not boast a great build but my “guess” is that it actually is tough enough to survive as a carry-around portable or travel headphone for everyday use. The whole frame is made of plastic with a metal band bringing up the clamping area of the headphone. The box comes with a carrying bag, 6.3mm stereo adapter and a 1.5m extension cable. A special mention to Creative’s frustration free packaging, I still remember how I had to fight with the Sennheiser HD448 blister packaging! The Creative Aurvana Live! feels really light in the hands and has this ” aura of coziness” about it. The 40mm “bio-cellulose” diaphragm is held in plastic earcups covered with soft leatherette material (great for winter days). As a headphone designed for use with portable music players the CAL! has an impedance of 32 Ohms and is driven well by all almost all portable music players.

Comfort:

The CAL! reaches a level of comfort that I have not experienced even from headphone models costing 5 to 6 times its cost. The clamping force is almost non-existent and is very  similar to the HD448. I even wonder how Creative manages to keep the little isolation that it provides with such paltry clamping force (guess the leatherette earpads do that job!). The headphones disappear once the music starts playing and that’s how I like it. The upper part that sits on the head has little foam cover, but that does not deviate from the overall comfort the CAL! provides. The 1.2 meter cable is fine for my 5’10 stature but if you’re taller than the provided extension cable is a nice touch. The CAL! is really light (210 grams) and just disappears once I hang it around my neck like any portable headphone should. The earcups envelop my ears (circumaural) but I can easily see that they might not for users with larger ears (becoming supraural) resulting in even less noise isolation.

Sound:

Lovely, warm and very musical. Driven straight out of my iPod Classic the CAL! does a beautiful job of most types of music that I throw at it. The vocals are slightly recessed (or it’s just the highs creating the feeling!), clear sharp treble with decent extension, lovely midbass – bass is present, not so much sub bass and rumble, but clear tight lows. The soundstage  feels as good as the HD448s and the musicality of this headphone definitely bests both the Superlux HD661 and the Sennheiser HD448. I’m a proponent of uncompressed music and prefer using lossless files whenever possible and would recommend that music lovers need to experiment with the same. My personal experience is that the headphone or IEM that one uses can greatly affect the clarity or resolution of these lossless files and believe is one of the reasons that people often don’t notice the difference compared to an mp3 file. The Creative Aurvana Live is a headphone that will definitely help appreciate lossless and higher resolution music be it on a computer or a portable music player.

Upon connecting my Fiio E11 to the CAL! I was expecting that the bass would probably get a bit too strong but to my surprise, that never happened. There was a slight improvement in definition overall and that’s all I could experience! So there is little to almost no improvement in adding an amp to this headphone (which is good and bad!). Performance is very much similar when connected directly to a laptop so its great for movies and casual gaming as well. As Tyll’s review at Inner Fidelity and the good folks at HeadFi have shown the Aurvana Live seems to be a reincarnation of the Denon AH-D1001. The bio-cellulose based diaphragm is still used in today’s Denons like the AH-D 2000,5000 and 7000. Not long ago, I had spent a short time with the AH-D2000 and could actually feel the “Denon sound” in the CAL! The D2000 is in a completely different category than the CAL! and therefore outmatches it, but the “flavour” of the sound is very similar.

(Courtesy: http://www.innerfidelity.com)

In conclusion:

The Creative Aurvana Live! is a crowd-pleaser with its warm and mid-bass bumped detailed presentation. The sub 100 buck headphone market is one of the hottest and the Aurvana Live is a capable entry, though not a popular one. Newer arrivals like the Sennheiser HD449 face some stiff competition from the CAL! considering the price and quality delivered, lets not forget the Superlux HD661 as well with its unbelievable price point.

Creative seems to be one of the under-appreciated players in the headphones market and its offerings like the Aurvana Live! seem to be lost midst the celebrity endorsed, ridiculously colored or funky design headphones crowd out there. The CAL! is a well-rounded headphone offering that should be a very good choice for the general smart music listener looking for slightly neutral presentation and isn’t looking for a bass-head headphone. The only setback that one can associate with the Aurvana Live is the poor isolation that it offers but I have had no problems using it outdoors since that also makes it a sufficiently safe choice as well!

As a well-rounded headphone offering its not suprising that eventhough it  does not enjoying popularity it does seem to have a strong fan following. In fact there are a whole bunch of mods that these die hard fans have come up with which seems to pretty much make the Aurvana Live an awesome buy for the money.

Update: Seems like the CAL! is getting popular, CNET just published its best headphone picks for under 100 bucks and guess what’s at the top!!

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