It isn't hard to design a great-sounding headphone when you have a four-figure projected price. Even at much lower prices, such as $300, I've heard far more good headphones than bad. But what about headphones priced below $100, or even $75? In this price range, it's "many are called, and few respond" territory. There simply aren't many headphones of any style, let alone a full-sized over-the-ear design, that don't have some serious compromises, either in sound or build quality, when you get down into commodity-priced cans.
Cue the music for Monoprice's new entry into the fray: a closed-back, on-ear (and for some, over-the-ear) headphone with a removable and interchangeable cable for $69.99. Not only does this headphone sound more than decent, but it will not fall apart in the first hour of use. Let's look at this modern miracle.
The Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone (product number 12230) weighs only 262.4 grams (or slightly under 10 ounces) and has a sensitivity of 102 dB. It uses a 40mm full-range driver with a published frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz (with no + or - given). The impedance is a portable-friendly 32 ohms with a recommended input power of 20 mW and a maximum input power of 50 mW.
Most of this headphone's surfaces are covered by a black rubberized finish, except for the side pivots, which are chrome. The padded headband has plenty of flex and delivers medium side-pressure, which should be quite comfortable for humans with regularly proportioned craniums. The earpads are pleather, filled with memory foam, and replaceable. The earpieces can fold flat for storage and travel, and the headphones come with a molded travel case that has room for the headphones, cables, and even a small portable player, such as the Astell & Kern AK Jr.
The Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone also comes with a removable four-foot-long cable that includes play/pause, forward, and back controls for iDevices. Since it is removable (and replaceable), cable longevity will not be a limiting factor.
The most important aspect of a headphone is how well it fits. I've experienced plenty of high-ticket headphones that were only comfortable for a short period of time before some aspect of their fit became uncomfortable. The Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone is not the most comfortable over-the-ear design I've ever worn (the AudioQuest NightHawk is my current fave), but it is sufficiently comfortable that I did not feel the need to tear the headphones off my head after an hour. The primary comfort downside is that the pleather earpads do not breathe; so, on warm days, your ears can get a wee bit damp.
The earpad coverage of the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone was unique in my experience. Although labeled as an "over-the-ear" design, for me these proved to be an on-the-ear/over-the-ear combination that formed an excellent seal when I didn't wear glasses. Even when my glasses were on, these headphones delivered a good seal as long as the sidepieces of my glasses remained close to my head.
With its 32-ohm impedance and 102dB SPL at 1 mW sensitivity, the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone ranks as a relatively easy-to-drive can that should be equally at home in a desktop or portable rig. I used a variety of devices during the review, including the Aurender W1000 Flow, NuPrime DAC-10H, Oppo HA-1, Sony NW-ZX2, Astell & Kern AK Jr, Astell & Kern AK240, Calyx M, and Sony PHA-2. In every case, there was adequate gain still in reserve while listening at my own personal maximum volume level.
Isolation from outside noise through the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone was just okay--I could hear everything going on around me, although it was slightly muffled. Sound leakage to the outside world was quite good, however. I could not hear any sound coming from the headphones while playing at normal volumes when I was more than two feet away.
Probably a prospective purchaser's biggest concern with a sub-$100 headphone is its build quality and how that will affect long-term use. The Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone is not as ruggedly made as most $200 to $300 headphones I've seen, but it is not a fragile POS either. While I would not recommend tossing the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone across the room on a regular basis or sitting on the headphones for sport, for regular use I feel they will hold up quite well.
During the past month, I've been playing a cruel trick on any audiophiles who've visited my home. I've asked them to close their eyes while I gave them several headphones to listen to. Included in the mix of $300 to $1,800 headphones was the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone. Although none of my victims chose the Monoprice headphone as their favorite, all were amazed to discover that a pair of sub-$100 earphones was even included in the mix. In purely sonic terms, the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone sounds much better than listeners would expect. The reason is simple: these headphones don't have any egregious sonic issues. They get the midrange right, they have decent and controlled bass, and they lack any nasty treble spikes. If you put a decently recorded track into them, you get more than acceptable sound out the other end.
While you won't get the level of inner detail that comes through a pair of Stax electrostatic or Audeze planar designs, the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone has adequate low-level information to keep listeners involved. Sub-bass (or what we older audiophiles refer to as low bass) was somewhat attenuated when compared with headphones like the AudioQuest NightHawk. Upper treble air was also not quite as obvious through the Monoprice headphones as through the Audeze EL-8 or HiFiMan HE-560, but it did not sound hooded or closed in. Finally the overall harmonic balance of the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone was far closer to neutral than I've come to expect from entry-level-priced headphones.
If you favor electronic music with heavy bass and prefer to listen at extremely high volumes, you will discover that the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone has its limits, SPL-wise. While I could not make the headphones distort when listening at what I consider loud levels, I could, when I took them off and boosted the levels, hear some sympathetic can resonances begin to color the sound. So, if loud is your thing, these are not your cans.
• The Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone gets the midrange right when many others in the class do not.
• The fit of these headphones is very comfortable, and they are lightweight.
• The harmonic balance is neutral without any big sonic spikes or bulges.
• The build quality of these headphones is adequate but not super heavy-duty.
• The Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone can be over-driven into distortion if you are not careful.
• Eyeglass wearers may find it slightly harder to get a complete seal around their ears while wearing glasses.
Comparison and Competition
While I've used plenty of over-the ear designs in the $200-plus price range that deliver good sound and quality construction, the Monoprice Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone is the first full-sized over-the-ear sub-$75 headphone I've heard that also delivers the goods. Yes, the Koss Porta Pros are still the low-price can of choice if you can only spring for $50; however, for the extra $25, the Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone is a great step-up.
If you need an over-the-ear pair of headphones and are on a tight budget and you don't audition Monoprice's Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone, you will miss a prime opportunity to own some remarkably high-performance headphones. I'm buying a pair for no other reason than to keep them as a reference benchmark. The Hi-Fi Over-the-Ear Headphone ranks as the least expensive closed-can headphone I've heard that I could live with happily.
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