The Talented Noontec Zoro – Review

Noontec Zoro Headphones

The portable headphone market is a rapidly growing branch of consumer electronics and audio. The Noontec Zoro is a new headphone in the market and  with a price that makes it immensely appealing and with an attractive styling to suit. Soundwise, Noontec has also decided to take a balanced presentation, opting out of the “boomy bass” approach of several of its counterparts. Most headphones that are designed for audiophiles generally try to maintain a reasonably neutral presentation, which is tweaked to tilt slightly on either sides of the sound spectrum (from treble to bass) to add some personality to the product.

Design & Comfort

The build is very respectable for a budget headphone. The Zoro feels good when you hold it your hands, though the folding hinges seem a little under-built in my opinion. The headphone is very light and may not be able to take too much of a beating. The headphone competes strongly in the looks department and there is no missing the “semblance” to another popular brand! 😉 Though I believe this was done for its marketing potential it also tends to mislead the consumer in a good or bad way.

 The detachable cable is very convenient, considering a portable headphone usually experiences a lot of stress on the cables. The flat cable is not unique but is catchy and helps with avoiding cable tangle. The headphone can be adjusted to fit different head sizes; the extension mechanism makes a satisfying click and has clear markings. The Zoro folds up conveniently and can be carried around in the provided pouch which actually keeps the fingerprint prone glossy plastic cleaner. Comes in three colors (red, black & White), of which I prefer the white – shows less finger smudges. The provided carrying pouch is handy to carry the headphones in, when folded. The folding setup makes it more convenient to carry and adds to it’s appeal.

The earpads are on the smaller side from my perspective and I had to experiment with the fit. The headphones had no problem holding onto my slightly larger than average head. After about an hour of continuously wearing the Zoro, I did feel a distinct pain developing in my ear lobes. I had to take a break! I have also heard instances of similar experiences from some other Zoro users on the HeadFi forum. After several days of using the headphone I was able to narrow down the problem to the way one places the earpads on the ear. The problem only affects users with slightly larger than average ear lobes, though the best way to judge this is to just buy it from a seller that accepts returns!

Sound

Let me start by saying that I am able to forgive what little disadvantages the Zoro has for the lovely sound it pleasantly surprised me with! The Noontec Zoro has a very neutral presentation but yet manages to keep the music pleasurable. Ideally I would be saying these words about much higher end headphones with suitable prices to match. I keep reminding myself that this is an entry level model priced as such!

The bass is tight and well-fleshed with a satisfying texture. In fact the the Noontec Zoro has one of the best bass for the price. The Creative Aurvana Live! (CAL) comes close, the Zoro edges out the CAL with slightly better definition in my opinion.It is also without doubt the best bass presentation I have ever heard at this price point! bass response is very precise and tight with good texture and doesn’t get overbearing at all. So is this a bass head’s headphone? if you are looking for the presentation I have described above, then sure! but don’t expect the bass to be bloated and flowing into the mids and generally creating a “boomy” signature as most budget basshead phones do.

As a part of its neutral presentation style, the vocals are clear and there is very little to no bleeding of other frequency ranges into the mids. I like presentations where the mids are slightly pushed forward in the soundstage which I believe envelops the listener in music, but the vocals on the Zoro are slightly recessed or rather in line with its neutral nature. This presentation of mids keeps the listener interested in the whole audio spectrum providing a balanced style. There is generally something special about the mids that one gets easily absorbed by that part of the sound spectrum, the Zoro doesn’t add any magic of its own though presents the mids in a satisfying flavour.

The highs are well etched out compared to the other headphones in this price range. The highs retain enough detail to provide good tonality to all genres of music. The Zoro does not have a bright image in the highs and also clearly beats its closest rival, the CAL! At times shiny recordings do tend to bother, but was far and few. My other favorite in this price range the Sennheiser HD448, is easily beaten in bass response and high end clarity by the Zoros. The HD449 seems to have received an appreciable upgrade but I personally have not heard it to compare with the Zoro. The Sennheisers on the other hand, beat the Zoro hands down in comfort! The Zoro shines with just about every source I tried it with, the iPod Classic, iPod Touch, dell laptop (headphones out) & the Sansa Clip+. Feeding it good quality files, an mp3 320 Kbps or a lossless audio file brings out all that the headphone has to offer. Adding an amplifier to the setup did very little to none, the Fiio E11 and the O2 both did not do anything special. Tip: Pickup one of those Vmoda cables that come with a mic and now you can use the Zoro with your smartphone as well!

Comparisons & Conclusion

  The Zoro does not compete with the Vmoda M80, the Sennheiser HD25 1 II & company (but is definitely going to pull some of this crowd) but establishing a niche of its own at a price point that generally does not provide this style of audio presentation and quality. The soundstage is good, nowhere near the Vmoda M80 but for a closed can at this price range, it is very satisfactory.

Noontec Zoro & Meelec HT21The true competitor to the Zoro (in my opinion) is the Creative Aurvana Live!. Both headphones have a similar retail price, are closed portable headphones and aim for a reasonably neutral but sound. As good as the CAL! is, the Zoro seems to edge the CAL! out in terms of base response, clarity and overall neutrality. The laid back style of presentation combined with its neutral tonality does make the Noontec Zoro unlike any other portable headphones I have used.This also affects to some degree the noise isolation which is not great on the Zoro but fair provided it is not too noisy! The Meelec HT21 is decent portable headphone and provides little isolation but does give a quality sound that than most bundled earphones. Priced appropriately lower, it lacks noticeably behind the Zoro in terms of sound quality. If you are planning for the HT21, I suggest to aim a little higher and go with the Zoro.

Noontec Zoro & Superlux HD661 A good ear-seal combined with a weighted boomy and in your-face fun presentation ( the Superlux HD661) generally tends to lower the perception of noise and is preferred for portable headphones, the Zoro being the only defector I know of.The very mature presentation style of the Noontec Zoro may not be for everybody but if you are looking for a headphone with a balanced presentation it is tough to beat at its price! Noontec Zoro is available from Flipkart in India and making use of discount coupons from CupoNation can save you more, making the headphones a bargain not worth missing.

This post was sponsored by CupoNation.

Review Equipment:

iPod Classic – Cambridge Audio DAC Magic- Fiio E11 Amp, O2 Amp

320 Kbps MP3 & Lossless Audio tracks

Superlux HD661, 668B, Meelec HT21, Vmoda M80, Creative Aurvana Live!

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Sennheiser HD558 headphones

Sennheiser HD 558 – Review

I am an ardent follower of Sennheiser products, specially their audiophile headphone line. Starting out the CX-300 (as replacement for my iPod ear buds), HD448, PX100, HD600 and currently with the HD650, they have always impressed me with their products. Sennheiser has recently refreshed its audiophile range of with the HD518, 558 & 598 and the fabulous HD600 is almost out leaving just the HD650. This review takes a look at the mid-tier Sennheiser HD 558, which actually turned out to be the best value headphone in the current line-up.

Sennheiser HD558

The Sennheiser HD558 maintains the classic headphone look with good styling. I specially mention the “classic headphone” look because with the HD 598 Sennheiser has tried a new look/color which seems to have many complaining. Personally, the HD598 is a refreshing redesign and I have no complaints. Incase you are not the consumer who goes for the European sports car look (of the HD598) then its just one more reason to pickup the HD558. The new audiophile line also sports detachable cables, a welcome feature – as more often than not the cables are more susceptible to usage.The clean curves and bold looks and reasonably good plastic housing makes it worth the price. You can always look up the feature list on  on the HD 558 product page, so let’s get on with things that matter more… (in my opinion).

The classic comfort that one expects from Sennheiser headphones is prominent the HD 558 and one feels it the moment the phones go on the head. The most obvious characteristic that you’ll notice with the 558 is the large soundstage and airy presentation (within this price category). Ofcourse one expects such a presentation from open-headphones in general, however I think that the 558s provide a good dimensional presentation for an entry-level audiophile headphone. I haven’t heard the Grados and Audio Technicas so I can’t compare them but I have heard the Sennheiser HD600 and AKG K550 and know a good presentation when I hear one! I tried out the 558s on both a Matrix Mstage followed by a Burson HA160 and the headphones stepped up their act with better resolution and dynamics.

Sounds like…

 The highs were initially a bit shiny for my tastes but with time they did settle down. In general the highs are crisp and clean (probably my Cambridge DAC Magic rubbed off some of its upper end shine).The mids are lovely and smooth, right there along with both highs and lows. If you enjoy jazz and vocals you’ll appreciate the tone of the mids greatly. It definitely stands up in comparison to my previous Sennheiser HD448 (and it should considering the price difference, and it definitely would be the recommended upgrade from the 448s). Bass is in sufficient quantity for non-bass heads, though it does get slightly boomy when extending further down, all-in-all quite good for the price and I did notice slight betterment with burn-in (I recommend atleast 50 hrs of burn-in). I have been recently listening to a HiFiman HE500 and a Sennheiser HD650, so its very much likely that I have been “spoiled” with regard to the quality of bass that I expect ;-). That said, I would definitely rate the treble performance of the 558’s higher than its bass.The HD558 retains most of the laid-back style house sound of Sennheiser which goes very well with a lot of listeners but if you are a serious rock and electronica nut these may not provide that pace or “zing” that adds a great feeling to such tracks. Though I cannot exactly pin down the flavor in the HD558, I see it as a more “popular” deviation from the previous HD6xx line. The HD558 is not as laid back as the previous generation of Senns, and I don’t see that as a disadvantage – it probably reflects the fact that Sennheiser is updating it’s house style with a bit of popular music listening styles. Overall the HD558 can be described as a very pleasant and slightly colored listening experience. The coloring keeps the 558 from getting cold and yet not too warm. This nature keeps the HD558 suitable for most music genres though hip-hop listeners may notice the lack of strong bass.

Sennheiser mentions that the 558 plays well with most mp3 players and portable media players owing to its higher sensitivity. I found this to be the case as the everything from my iPod Classic, iPhone to the Sandisk Clip could drive the 558 easily to loud volumes, that said the 558 ships with a quarter-inch headphone pin and using the provided 3.5mm adapter is quite “dorky”! Though Sennheiser says the sensitive 50 ohm HD558 is compatible with most portable audio sources, frankly driving it from mp3 players and laptop audio output sources is not a great idea. These headphones are meant to be driven atleast from a home audio receiver but one can also opt for a much more wallet friendly and portable headphone amp like the Fiio E10 and enjoy better sound from the headphones.

 Sennheiser HD558 headphones

in conclusion…

The general pricing difference between the 3 models (HD518, 558 & 598) are roughly 30 bucks (HD518-100, HD558-130 & HD598-160).Remember that there is the HD518 which sits below the 558 coming in just at or under 100 bucks, my advice is to skip it! The price difference between the 518s & 558s is almost negligible…just hunt for good offers on the 558 (online) and you will definitely be coming away with a great value purchase for your money. The next step-up model HD598 is relatively pricier than the 558 in the real world, it goes without saying that if you are getting a good price on the 598s, don’t think twice!

The HD 518,558 & 598 all sport the same driver, Sennheiser has worked the difference in sound by adjusting just the shell, which is cool! Anyway, that also allows the possibility of users hacking the headphone for better performance (or not!). The popular mod for the HD558 brings it closer to the HD598 but not without setbacks, always something to try for the enthusiast. The mod itself is simple and worth a try (see this youtube video)!