After reviewing the outstanding Master & Dynamic MH40 Headphones at a price of $399, little did I know that soon after I would be amazed yet again by this savvy and forward-looking New York City company.
While covering the recent New York Audio Show I visited the Master & Dynamic table and noticed a pair of very stylish gunmetal/black leather headphones hanging on one of the company’s stands without a cable attached. Intrigued, I was informed they were the new wireless Bluetooth based MW60 closed headphones. This was their debut, retail $549.
I requested a demonstration pronto that was kindly granted (I used my own MacBook Air/iTunes to bluetooth stream CD quality rips) and it quickly revealed that I had discovered something very special. Adding even more fashion and luxury, the MW60 can be bought as a package with an elegant (and protective) silver colored metal Zero Halliburton carrying case ($830 for the package). Tres cool.
CEO Jonathan Levine graciously sent me a gunmetal pair for review. The delivery method itself was quite impressive, locally via uberrush.com. Upon delivery at our door, caught off guard, my wife at first thought I had been shopping late at night on Amazon while sauced, and had ordered something ridiculous like a salami slicer or a scuba diving suit. But she too soon realized that instead, something very special had arrived that we all could appreciate/enjoy.
What is Bluetooth?
Bluetooth uses radio waves encoded to ensure low-power wireless reception and transmission between two devices. The great advantage of Bluetooth over other wireless connections: No internet connection is required, no base stations are required; you are not tethered to any particular device, you can connect (pair) to any bluetooth enabled device on the fly (a computer with a mouse or keyboard, for example, or in the present application, a music server/iphone/computer with a pair of headphones).
Older versions of Bluetooth, while useful for connecting two devices, have not been able to handle transmission of audiophile quality files (e.g., CD 16/44.1 PCM) for streaming play due to they way compress (code) and are further restricted by only being able to transmit over a short distance. Hence, in general, most audiophiles (myself included) do not have a positive view of using Bluetooth for audio streaming to headphones. But, as we shall see, Master & Dynamic’s superb engineering design, and creative use of a modern version of Bluetooth with their MW60 have dramatically changed the game in ways I never thought possible. Wireless audiophile quality music upon demand for headphones is now here.
As a historical side note: According to bluetooth.com, ‘The name Bluetooth comes from the 10th century Danish King Harald Blåtand or Harold Bluetooth in English. King Blåtand helped unite warring factions in parts of what are now Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Similarly, Bluetooth technology was created as an open standard to allow connectivity and collaboration between disparate products and industries.’
How do the MW60s differ from the MH40?
The construction materials are the same — forged aluminum and stainless steel with premium cowhide and soft lambskin; yet again emphasizing Master & Dynamic’s signature of paying serious attention to quality. Although the MW60 have the same 45mm Neodymium drivers and 32 ohms impedance as the MH40 and have the same dimensions (200mm x 185mm x 50mm), they are surprisingly lighter in weight than the MH40, particularly given all the other high quality goodies inside; 345 gm (12.17 ounces) versus 360 gm (12.70 ounces). The Bluetooth antenna(s) (built into the left cup) is a machined aluminum antenna using Bluetooth 4.1 with Aptx with a 4x industry average signal range, and a 16 hour battery life. The battery charges via an included micro USB input cord that one can attach under the right driver; the regular cord provided can be attached under the left driver.
Aptx is an audio codec (encoding) designed for CD-quality audio transfer over Bluetooth. But the MH60 can also handle other codecs such as Apple’s AAC, and if need be SPC (not considered optimal by any means). The MW60 has a built-in DAC chip. But it is the implementation of how these technologies are combined in the MW60 that is non-trivial. Master & Dynamic’s Drew Stone Briggs, emailed me the following response to my queries:
We achieve our sound quality in a combination of many technologies and methods. Our sound signature is created by using the same custom MH40 driver, tuning the acoustic enclosures (we tune the enclosures instead of adding a digital EQ), having a high quality digital to analog converter (DAC) and accepting multiple codecs. We give high quality streaming codec options such as AAC and AptX so that your source can send high res music to our headphones. Then our headphone DAC and preamp setup provides up to 24bit 192kHZ playback.
You can pair the MW60 with two devices at once (e.g., a MacBook Air and an iPhone). The battery is not needed for a direct cable connection, so if you were to run out of juice, just use the cord. When cabled in this conventional way, it bypasses the internal DAC; you essentially then have the MH40, and can use them with a powerful high-end amp/system if you so wish.
Moreover, the MW60 come fitted with a built-in omni-directional noise isolating microphone, and volume control buttons cleverly built in to the bottom of the right driver. (The MH40, by contrast, come with a second cord that has its own mic and volume control buttons.) You can now Bluetooth using the mic with (say) Skype on your computer; just super. All controls are tactile (as opposed to electronic); you physically push or slide buttons. Simple.
As for looks: Refined, elegant and luxurious. Retro style gone, more minimalist looking, ‘closed’ looks closed; no grilles. The sliding stainless steel rods ensuring that you can properly align and seal the cups over your ears are no longer sticking out like radio antennas; they stay inside the band. The sides have foldable hinges allowing the phones to collapse into a small portable half-sized unit that fits into an included fashionable looking pouch that zips shut with a golden zipper. And there is enough room in the pouch to hold the also included small back cloth bag that holds the two cords. Awesome.
How do the MW60s sound?
Upon their delivery, I was so excited that I had them up and running within 5 minutes; the battery came fully charged. I paired them with my MacBook Air and started to play CD rips with iTunes. I wanted to make sure I was taking best advantage of the bluetooth Aptx codec, so I downloaded a free app called ‘Bluetooth Explorer’ which forces the MacBook Air to use Aptx so that both (headphones and Mac) would be doing so. Although I also experimented a bit with using Apple’s AAC codec, in the end I stuck with Aptx.
I was dazzled at the quality of sound; rich, full, warm, natural and clear as a bell with lovely dynamic range. Detailed instrumental imaging too. After some initial experimentation, I also set up JRiver Media Center along side of iTunes so that I could play (uncompressed) FLAC files instead of having to first convert a FLAC file to (say) AIFF for iTunes play. I configured JRiver so that it would cut down any PCM file that was higher than CD resolution to CD 16/44.1; everything worked like a charm, and the quality of sound was stunning. The sonic character and quality was essentially the same as that of the MH40 — but no wire! I could wander around my apartment anywhere and not have a signal drop or skip. I could even enter a bedroom and close the door without any noticeable signal loss. I typically kept the MacBook Air on the kitchen table.
At one point, while listening to The Bangles famous 1986 hit ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ (from the Bangles album ‘Different Light’) I found myself wandering out of my apartment into the hallway practicing that classic walk as described lyrically as:
Slide your feet up the street
Bend your back
Shift your arm and then you pull it back.
Suffice to say there was no loss of connection, although I admit to the embarrassment of being spotted by my neighbours. But I was having fun.
Over the next week I gave these cans a massive workout, sometimes at home, sometimes in my office, at friends’ homes, and even at restaurants or bars (the MW60 are truly closed so block out external nose). Everything I needed fit in my backpack (I tended to use/prefer using my MacBook Air as the source). But in fact if you just keep the headphones on your head and keep an iPhone in your coat pocket, not even a backpack is needed. I was deeply impressed with the MW60’s ability to handle with aplomb anything I threw at them. As with the MH40, live acoustic music sounded exceptional. Bass was deep and articulate but not boomy, the nuances of venues could be detected; voices sounded intimate; delicate details of percussive instruments were expressed naturally.
Here is a sample of test music I put the MW60 through: Nat King Cole, ‘Love is the Thing’. The tracks ‘Well All Right’, and ‘True Love Ways’, from Buddy Holly, ‘The Master Tapes’. ‘Waiting for the Miracle’ by Leonard Cohen. Chick Corea Trio, Trilogy, ‘Piano Sonata: The Moon’. Janos Starker, ‘Bach Suites for solo cello’. And James Taylor, ‘Oh, Susannah.
The MW60s are special. They are very simple to use, beautiful, stylish, solidly made and yield audiophile quality sound wirelessly, while at the same time still allowing a hardwired connection for very fine systems and higher resolutions. Are they worth the extra $150 over the MH40s? Easily. Very highly recommended.
Further information: Master & Dynamic