Headphone Buyers Guide (Under $200)
As the lines between technology, fashion and lifestyle become blurred, the headphone market has exploded. We now enjoy offerings from the core brands of the audio world, along with a whole swag of licensed releases from the world's biggest brand names. Just where to start in deciding which to buy however? StereoNET has narrowed down the choices for you.
One of the fastest growing categories in the consumer electronics industry, over-ear and on-ear products have certainly replaced those little white in-ear buds Apple introduced to the mass market. We've split our buyers guide into two categories, Under $200, and Under $500 (stay tuned for this to be published very soon).
In order to review a cross section of products against one another, we developed a numerical judging and scoring system. Firstly we weighed all headphones, judged the comfort, visual appeal, features and the included accessories. Next we moved on to the all important sound quality capability of the headphones, with a total score out of 75 points, based on accuracy and clarity in the sub and mid bass regions (20-260Hz), mid range (260-3kHz), highs (3kHz+) and finally overall linearity and dynamics. This is of course subjective, however we also brought in a second opinion on the accuracy and clarity of each pair reviewed, Simon Tremlett, an active audio club member and experienced sound quality judge. We used these criteria to come up with a final score for each reviewed product.
Listening tests involved a variety of high resolution music played from JRiver Media Centre, through a Burson Conductor USB DAC / Headphone Amp.
Weight: 291 grams
Comments: Founded in 1991, Ultrasone, from South Germany, is a specialised headphone company. The HFI-580 comes with a 3.5mm stereo connector and includes a 1/4” adaptor. The HFI-580 also comes with a lengthy cord compared to similar products, however you cannot remove the cable from the headphones. A carry bag is included, along with a demonstration music CD. Of particular note was the high sound quality score of 64/75, making this the sound quality, and overall winner of this headphone review.
The HFI-580 display excellent mid-range detail, with a slight increase in the lower midbass, but overall a very smooth response that is certainly not fatiguing.
While the heaviest headphone in our review group, they are comfortable and in our opinion, not heavy enough to bother during normal listening periods.
The Ultrasone HFI-580 represents excellent sound quality with all criteria considered, is awarded the 'Overall Winner' with 88 points.
Sennheiser HD 439
Weight: 186 grams
Comments: Sennheiser is perhaps one of the oldest names in sound products, from recording to monitoring and particularly headphones, with a history spanning more than 65 years. The HD 439 from Sennheiser comes in as nearly the cheapest of all headphones supplied in this category and certainly took us by surprise in capability. The HD 439 comes with a 3.5mm stereo connector and includes a 1/4” adaptor. These headphones are supplied however with a choice of two length cables, which is handy depending on a home or mobile application. No carry case is supplied with the HD 439 suggesting more of a home, studio or office application, particularly as they are not as compact as other headphones in the category.
The detail and warmth of the midrange was evident in our listening tests, particularly on acoustic guitar and vocals. The HD 439 scored a 62/75 in sound quality listening tests, just two points behind the Ultrasone HFI-580 and overall winner of our review.
The Sennheiser HD 439 offers great sound quality, the high build quality you expect from Sennheiser, but at such an affordable price this is a standout value for money pair of headphones. The HD 439 scored 87 points overall.
Weight: 151 grams
Comments: Marshall is the rock legend! One of the more recent brands to enter the headphone market, but with a proud history in the rock 'n roll world, that traditional Marshall styling has been carried across to their headphone range. We can't help but love the curly cord, although it is not removable. The Major cord also includes a microphone and remote. The Major comes with a 3.5mm plug but is also supplied with a 1/4” adaptor. No case is included.
The Marshall Major exhibits a great overall sound, but lacked in the lower regions compared to other models in the review. The Major showed great detail through the rest of the frequency range, but becomes a little harsh when pushed, possibly beyond the expectations of typical use however. The Major scored 57/75 in sound quality listening tests.
The Marshall Major has that classic Marshall design and proudly wears the brand name with style. Great sound and comfort, with a total score of 82 points overall.
Weight: 151 grams
Comments: Grado is one of the oldest family owned companies in the audio world, based in Brooklyn, New York. The SR60i represents the entry range of the Prestige Series of Grado headphones. They are supplied standard with a 3.5mm connector, but also supplied with a 1/4” adaptor. The cables are not removable and no case is supplied.
In our listening tests we found we had to drive the Burson Conductor higher than most other models we reviewed to get the SR60i's to sing. They present a very smooth response but with a noticable bottom end drop off. At higher volume they lose a little composure, but still came out of our review with a very respectable 4th overall on sound quality with 56/75 points - we're being very critical of what is otherwise remarkable sounding headphones.
While comfortable, the supplied foam cups may not be to everyone's liking, and we wonder how they will last over time.
Overall, another high contender in the value for money category, coming in at only $119 RRP, scoring 79 points overall.
Weight: 248 grams
Comments: MTX Audio is one of the biggest names in car audio, and have recently turned their talents towards the headphone category. The iX1 are their on-ear headphone range and have recently been released in Australia to great popularity. The iX1 is supplied with a 3.5mm connector and an additional phone control cord, as well as a carry case.
The MTX iX1 also offers connection points on either side of the headphone which can be convenient, particularly as we found the cord a little short compared to other offerings. We also noted a much tighter fit of the headphones in relation to other models but suspect with wearing the headphones would give a little (or our reviewers have big heads!).
Listening tests demonstrated a very flat frequency response, with full bass extension and clean mids and highs. The iX1 scored 56/75 points in the sound quality judging.
We dig the visual appeal of the iX1, available in a range of colours.
The MTX iX1 are a great entry to the headphone market for MTX, with cool styling that will appeal to the younger market. Overall, a worthy contender with a total score of 78 points.
Weight: 192 grams
Comments: Urbanears is a collective out of Scandinavia, with a unique design philosophy. “Beyond the obvious sound rendition we have a vision of making headphones that feel more like clothes than chromed plastics.” The Zinken is their top offering supplied with a unique connection system called 'Turncable'. On one end there is a 3.5mm connector, while the other is a 1/4” connector. The Zinken accepts both connections, while also allowing another user to plug into the free connector port to share music (ZoundPlug). The supplied cord also includes a remote for phone control. No case is supplied.
The Zinken is aimed at DJ's and this may explain an emphasis on the lows and bottom end of the frequency response, while a distinct roll off occurs at the top end of their frequency response. We also noted however that the Zinken appeared to reveal more and more detail with more break-in and use. The frequency response may well flatten out with extended listening. Urbanears Zinken achieved a sound quality score of 48/75 points.
Urbanears Zinken is a unique company with design principles and a story that will appeal to a niche market. Overall the Zinken achieved a total score of 72 points.
Weight: 210 grams
Comments: Soul is another relatively new player in the headphone scene, established in 2009. Available in four colours, the SL100 are a durable, yet compact set of headphones. They come supplied with a 3.5mm connector on a detachable cord with phone control, while another non-remote cable is included. SL100 folds down into the included compact carry case.
Of particular note during listening was the comfort of the SL100's. While being in the middle of the weight range of the reviewed models, the SL100 are easy to wear for extended periods. The SL100 revealed a relatively smooth frequency response, however during complex playback the midbass regions suffered from breakup. SL100 achieved a total sound quality score of 47/75 points.
Overall the Soul SL100 presents a quality pair of headphones with included accessories, however we can't help but feel the sound quality represents a cheaper RRP. The SL100 achieved a total score of 70 points.
Weight: 136 grams
Comments: Urbanears is a collective out of Scandinavia, with a unique design philosophy. “Beyond the obvious sound rendition we have a vision of making headphones that feel more like clothes than chromed plastics.” Platten is Urbanears' “classic” style, supplied with a 3.5mm connector and remote cord. Platten is also the most lightweight pair of headphones in our guide at only 136 grams.
In our listening tests there was an apparent boost through the mid-range frequencies, however quite good detail. When pushed, the Platten would breakup during complex playback, however compressed music from a portable music player or smartphone would likely not highlight this so easily. The Platten achieved a total sound quality score of 47/75 points.
Urbanears Platten is the cheapest of all headphones supplied in this review (under $100 RRP) and achieved a total score of 68 points.
Weight: 239 grams
Comments: BOOM is a new player on the headphone market, grown out of Southern California with obvious appeal aimed at youth, sports and the street artist lifestyle. The Swap have a robust, virtually indestructible design, with the unique ability to swap out the headband and covers for different colours. The Swap are equipped with a 3.5mm connector and include a detachable phone control cord. No carry case is included.
The Swap are supplied with plastic covers that allow you to convert from on-ear to over-ear. Of particular note was an obvious increase in sound quality with the covers fitted. During listening tests, sub-frequency regions suffered with lagging and sloppy response. High frequencies tapered off quite sharply. The Swap achieved a total sound quality score of 36/75 points.
BOOM Swap has obviously been designed for a youthful market, tough and robust, with some unique features but could benefit from a lower RRP when compared to other offerings. The Swap achieved a total score of 56 points.
It's apparent that it is difficult to compare a selection of headphones based on price point alone, given the various markets each brand targets with features and styling. Ultimately however, a headphones' primary purpose is to playback music, and we have weighted our scores heavily on the sound quality ability of the supplied headphones.
We have to commend the Ultrasone HFI-580 and Sennheiser HD 439 on their remarkable sound quality, rivalling headphones closer to $500 (see our upcoming “under $500 headphone shootout”). The HFI-580 are likely more suited to a home / office listener, while we feel the Sennheiser HD 439 are more portable, and lighter, for the mobile listener.
StereoNET’s Founder and Publisher, born in UK and raised on British Hi-Fi before moving to Australia where he worked as an Engineer in both the audio and mechanical fields.