Every so often, I like to use this monthly column for a roundup of products we’ve recently reviewed or written about, highlighting my current favorites to shed more light on them and help readers with buying decisions.
A few months ago, I thought this month’s column was going to be about loudspeakers: Vivid Audio’s Oval B1 Decade ($28,000 USD per pair) and KEF’s Blade Two ($24,999.99/pair), my reviews of which were recently published. But lately, headphones have also been on my mind, and I wanted to talk about two of them as well: NAD’s Viso HP50 ($299) and Pryma’s 0|1 ($499-$549, depending on finish). Hans Wetzel reviewed the Pryma 0|1s in March 2016, so that review is fresh; the NADs were reviewed by S. Andrea Sundaram in August 2014, almost two years ago. However, the Viso HP50s are still current and still highly competitive -- reasons that, this month, we’ve not only added them to our Recommended Reference Components list, but produced a SoundStage! InSight video about them.
Headphones first . . .
Five years ago, there were hardly any headphones in my listening room -- just a couple pairs of Sennheisers, and some Grado SR60s I’d bought 20 years before and still had around. Both companies have been making headphones for decades -- but now, with the recent boom in on- and over-ear headphones, due mostly to the success of Beats by Dr. Dre, companies no one ever thought would make headphones now are. Consequently, I now have lots of headphones -- companies send them simply for me to try, or to photograph for our reviews. But I don’t write formal reviews of headphones; I leave that to Brent Butterworth, S. Andrea Sundaram, Hans Wetzel, and Rad Bennett.
But while I don’t review headphones, I do listen to every pair I receive. Often, I use them to listen to music directly from my laptop as I work, or from my smartphone when I go out for walks; other times, I use ’phones to monitor the sound of our InSight and Shorts videos (so far, we’ve produced 18 of these), plugging them into a camera (when we shoot on location) or a computer (during editing).
One thing consistent in my varied ways of using headphones is the absence of a dedicated headphone amplifier. For convenience, I just use whatever headphone jack is available, which means that any headphones I use must be sensitive enough for a computer, phone, or camera to drive them to usefully high volume levels. For these purposes, NAD’s Viso HP50 and Pryma’s 0|1 headphones are my current favorites, for slightly different reasons.
I prefer the Viso HP50s for their neutral sound -- they let me hear what’s on the recording or live feed without emphasizing or deemphasizing any part(s) of the audioband. I also admire their ability to reveal detail -- something that has always been important to me with music playback, but is now crucial in the making of our video soundtracks, particularly when monitoring the sounds of voices and checking for unwanted background noises. Finally, I’m thankful for the lightweight NADs’ overall comfort -- something that grows in importance the longer a pair of headphones is worn. After I used the HP50s for many months and experienced how good their sound is for their modest price, I found it no wonder that Brent Butterworth and Hans Wetzel use them as a quality-for-price reference in their reviews. In fact, when I recently asked Hans how he felt about the HP50s today, a year after he’d bought his pair, he wrote back with this: “The HP50s are my favorite audio component, and the best audio purchase I’ve ever made.” For the price, the Viso HP50s’ sound quality and comfort are hard to beat.
But I also love the Pryma 0|1s, for their ideal combination of sound, appearance, and durability. That last quality may surprise some; these headphones are so pretty you might be tempted to think they’re delicate. Far from it -- the Pryma 0|1s are much tougher than they look, and can take more abuse than any other consumer headphones I’ve tried, including the HP50s. Each earcup outer shell is made of robust material that doesn’t easily scratch, and surrounded by a band of real nickel that’s more likely to mark any surface it’s accidentally dropped on than take a mark itself. The buckle the headband loops through is stainless steel, and even the little knob on each earcup that locks it to the headband seems sturdy. The core of the headband is made of spring steel, which has a high percentage of carbon and silicon, and is known for its combination of high strength and elasticity. As a result, it’s strong -- and, when bent, can return to its original shape. This core is wrapped in real leather (outside) and microfiber (inside), well sewn together and looking unlikely to wear out any time soon. In terms of build quality, it’s easy to see why the Pryma 0|1s cost $200 more than the Viso HP50s.
I also like that all the Prymas’ major parts are detachable: the earcups can be easily detached from the headband, and the earpads and wires from the cups. This allows you to mix’n’match the parts to create the look you want, which Pryma helps you with. Currently, the company has headbands in five different colors ($89 each), with indications of more choices in the future. Right now they don’t sell the earcups or earpads separately, but I hope they will; this would make it very easy to replace any part, should it break -- and, as durable as these are, anything can happen. Selling the earcups and earpads separately could also allow for more mix’n’match options, particularly if they offer the ’pads in something other than black.
That the Prymas are also better looking than the NADs is proven to me by the reactions I get when I wear them in public. Yesterday, at Starbucks, I ordered a latte; when the barista handed it to me, she said, “I really like your headphones.” (Well, I was wearing the Coffee & Cream model.) Although I’d like to think she was flirting with me, I know better -- what she really liked were my headphones. And so does everyone else -- just look at pop superstar Beyoncé, who, about 40 minutes into Lemonade (a new project of hers that she calls a “visual album”), can be seen wearing a pair of Carbon Marsala Prymas. Talk about product placement!
The Pryma 0|1s don’t sound as neutral as the NAD Viso HP50s -- they’re a little fatter in the bass, a touch warmer in the midrange. That deviation from strict neutrality shouldn’t be surprising: The Prymas were designed and are made by Sonus Faber, in Italy, whose loudspeakers have always had a sound that’s very pleasing, but certainly not the pinnacle of neutrality. The 0|1s don’t reveal quite as much detail as the HP50s, so when I have to make sure that something sounds exactly right, I use the NADs. But listening to music for pleasure is a different story -- for that, I think the Prymas sound great. And for something that looks great on my head, it’s the Pryma 0|1s that I wear when I go out -- I can’t think of another pair of headphones, at any price, that I’d rather be seen in.
. . . and now the loudspeakers
I don’t use loudspeakers outside the house, or for monitoring the soundtracks of videos or recordings, or for any reason other than to reproduce in my listening room the sounds of recorded music. And, by definition, the best speakers are the ones that make those recordings sound most like the real thing: live music.
In the last few months, I’ve listened to and reviewed Vivid Audio’s Oval B1 Decade and KEF’s Blade Two loudspeakers, the sounds of both of which I describe at length in my reviews -- and I compared them to each other in my review of the KEF. Now I want to talk about a few of the design features they have in common that I feel play key roles in their high quality of sound. None of these features is unique to these brands, but for reasons unknown, they remain surprisingly rare among today’s high-end speakers. After I’ve described them, you, too, might wonder why more speaker makers aren’t following suit, given the success enjoyed by Vivid and KEF. You might also better appreciate why each of these speakers looks as wild as it does.
Most immediately noticeable are the radical shapes of the cabinets: the Vivid’s oval main cabinet is supported by a permanently affixed base, together looking something like a very thick tennis racket; and the KEF’s knife-blade side profile. These unusual shapes are far cries from the right-angled boxes of most loudspeakers, but they weren’t chosen for looks alone -- they contribute to the sound quality.
Internally, the nonparallel surfaces of both cabinets make it difficult for standing waves to develop, which can screw up the frequency response and thus color the sound. Externally, each baffle is rounded and very smooth, gracefully curving out to the edges, where it smoothly transitions to the side panels. There are no sharp edges, and neither baffle’s surface is interrupted by driver bolts or protruding ridges. The results -- two very smooth surfaces free of obstructions -- allow the soundwaves generated by each speaker’s drivers to be launched with minimal interference from the baffle. This interference results in diffraction -- surface anomalies deflecting soundwaves in many different, and undesired, directions, resulting in an erratic and uneven frequency response. The measured benefits of smooth wavelaunches can be seen in the frequency-response measurements we took of the Vivid and KEF speakers: very smooth lines, without the jagged peaks and dips that are often the results of diffraction. I’ve always found that speakers with such smooth frequency-response graphs sound cleaner and more open than those whose FR graphs reveal diffraction problems -- and that’s exactly what I heard through the KEF and Vivid with every recording I played. Both sounded astonishingly clean and open.
Then there’s the mounting of the low-end drivers: the Oval B1 Decade has one front-firing and one rear-firing woofer, while the Blade Two has two woofers on each side. What these two quite different designs have in common is that, in each, the woofers are arrayed in opposed pairs. The two woofers of each pair are connected to each other inside the cabinet: by a single metal rod in the Vivid, and by four metal rods in the Blade Two. This linked opposition creates a force-canceling or reaction-canceling effect, the benefits of which I described in the Blade Two review: “Extraneous vibrations created by each woofer are canceled because, when both are pumping out bass, their movements are equal and opposite of each other. As a result, vibrations from each driver that would normally travel into the cabinet are almost completely eliminated, which is one of the reasons KEF’s designers could get away with using such a lightweight cabinet material -- there’s less need for damping unwanted resonances with extra mass.” Indeed, when I laid a hand on either the KEF or the Vivid as it played music from low to high volumes, I felt almost no vibration at all. Force canceling clearly works to kill resonances.
The cabinet of the Blade Two is made from what KEF calls a self-forming polymer composite. The enclosure of Vivid’ Oval B1 Decade is made of a balsa core sandwiched by two layers of vacuum-infused, fiberglass-reinforced resin. Both speakers, with drivers, are very light: each Blade Two weighs 78 pounds, each Oval B1 Decade 79 pounds. Not surprisingly, I had no trouble moving either set of speakers around in my room. Compare that with Polymer Audio Research’s MKS ($42,000/pair), a speaker I reviewed in 2014 that has a much more conventional shape than the B1 Decade. But while the Polymer MKS takes up little more space than the Vivid, it weighs more than three times as much -- a backbreaking 270 pounds -- because it’s made of slabs of solid aluminum. It took the combined strength of three furniture movers to get each MKS up three flights of stairs to my listening room, and even then, they grumbled: “I’m glad you don’t have another level in your house!”
KEF’s and Vivid Audio’s unconventional materials also have sonic advantages, which Vivid’s designer, Laurence Dickie, talked about in a SoundStage! InSight video in October 2014: “The lighter we can make the thing, the higher the resonant modes, and that’s the point of the enclosure,” he said. “We’re trying to keep all those structural resonance modes as far out of band as possible.” Having heard the clarity and transparency achieved by his Oval B1 Decade, I have to think Dickie’s on to something. When I asked KEF designer Jack O’Clee-Brown about the behavior of the Blade Two’s cabinet material, he said this: “Force canceling removes almost all vibration transfer from the drivers to the cabinet and means that we can use a lightweight construction. We can then focus on designing a rigid cabinet that doesn’t allow the sound to escape through the walls. Curvature adds a great deal of stiffness to the cabinet.”
Using force-canceling drivers and unusually shaped cabinets made of lightweight materials are a few of the ways that Vivid Audio and KEF and are helping to advance loudspeaker technology. I hope that their success in producing such great sound with such bold designs will tempt others to break their own molds. If they do, we could see many exciting new speakers hitting the market in the next few years. Let’s see what happens.
Next . . .
In my February 2016 column, “The Best of CES 2016,” I mentioned that the next audio show we’d cover would be High End 2016, in Munich. That time is now upon us -- High End takes place May 5-8, and, as in every year since 2001, I’ll be there with our team to cover it. Our main coverage will appear daily, as the show happens, on SoundStage! Global, our website specially designed for coverage of audio events. In this space next month will appear “The Best of High End 2016” -- my favorite products from the show. You won’t want to miss that column -- the sheer number of products now debuted each year at High End makes it the world’s most important hi-fi event. I’m excited to see what’s new this May -- and I’m sure you are, too.
. . . Doug Schneider