Over the last year and a half, I have been paying careful attention to stereo headphones. Before then, I had a kind of ‘who cares’ attitude towards them. I ruled that a fine stereo system at home with excellent speakers and such was all one needs—using headphones was audio blasphemy. But the recent surge in high-quality headphones together with specialized amps for accommodating them wowed me in sound quality, turned me around and caused me to reevaluate my stand. I am talking about over-the-ear high-end closed models in what follows. My focus has been on closed since otherwise the sound will be heard by others around you and one can hear external noise (buses, cars, kids): that is not what I want. It would defeat my purpose of using headphones in the first place versus just playing my system.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing like the exquisite sound and large soundstage with its three dimensionality and isolation of instruments, personalized room acoustics, and all else that one gets with a fine stereo system. I am not trying to replace that experience nor even hinting that it is possible. When I use headphones, I want and like the isolation and sensory deprivation they offer as contrasted with listening to a stereo system out loud. Kind of like the difference between swimming laps in a pool versus jogging outside to get a workout; when jogging I can even do so with a friend and chat and socialize; not so while swimming laps. When I swim, I am on my own submerged in my own world, and that is exactly what I want from it.
When several months ago a friend of mine asked me to help him choose a high-end pair of headphones together with an amp, and was willing to spend several thousand dollars on the acquisition, I had by then done enough research and listening to feel comfortable giving him sound advice. His situation was different from mine in that he could not have a stereo system at home that would annoy others with music–he needed an isolated (sound wise) but very high quality headphone based system. And he did not want numerous components and cabling as is required by a complex stereo system.
I was particularly amazed by and satisfied with the sound quality of the Audeze LCD-XC (closed) at $1799 a pair, and I made sure that my friend matched them with a fine and powerful headphone amp with a built in DAC that uses USB input; he could thus feed the amp’s DAC high-resolution digital files with ease from his computer. I had the personal pleasure of burning in both the headphones and the amp at my own apartment before my friend took them home, and I greatly enjoyed the experience.
But I learned something of great importance in my journey of experimenting with headphones. There are wonderful audiophile quality over-the-ear closed headphones in the $300 – $500 range worthy of consideration for more general use, such as taking them in a backpack to one’s office or using them for communicating on Skype. One need not spend $1799 to acquire a pair that can impress.
The ones I have tried for some time now and the focus of this review are the Master & Dynamic MH40 Headphones, at $399. Master & Dynamic’s headphones are designed and developed in New York City, where the company resides, and manufactured in China. A slightly smaller and lighter version, the MH30 at $349 is available, too, but I will not be reviewing those here—the MH40 are Master & Dynamic’s top of the line, proudly referred to by the company as ‘The Modern Thinking Cap’.
Jonathan Levine, CEO and Founder of Master & Dynamic had generously let me use a new gorgeous pair of the brown leather/silver version when I recently reviewed the Sprout by PS Audio (an integrated amp with a headphone amp and DAC built in), and I also have used them with other headphone amp/DAC combos such as the Burson Conductor, and the Bel Canto c5i. I even brought the MH40 to other audiophiles’ homes and listened to them on their headphone amps, such as ones made by Schiit Audio.
How do the MH40 look and feel? What are the specs?
The MH40 are elegant with style and polish. They come fit with 45mm Neodymium High- Performance Drivers. Their impedance is 32 Ohms. They are slim and portable (200mm (7.87”) x 185mm (7.28”) x 55mm (2.17”)), considering that they are a closed model, and very solidly made — forged aluminum and stainless steel with premium cowhide and soft lambskin; no plastic cheap stuff, here. They weigh 360gm (0.8 lbs). In short they are considerably smaller and lighter than many other closed models in the same price range (some of which can be as heavy as 3 lbs and 50% larger). You can easily slip them in your bag and be on the move.
The MH40 come in black leather/black metal as well as the brown leather/ silver I mentioned above, and there is now a newer black leather/gunmetal model. One of the many well thought out features is the convenience of allowing the 2 meter cable (a thin and elegant woven type that doesn’t get tangled) to be detached and plugged into either the left or the right driver (you choose) and there is a tiny mute button on the right driver. The drivers are marked Left (L) and Right (R), and regardless of which driver you plug the cable into, the L/R stereo output remains constant. The drivers firmly slide up and down on stainless steel rods to ensure that you can properly align and seal them over your ears. The grilles on the drivers are for aesthetics only and add a nice retro touch; the MH40 are truly closed headphones.
The MH40 are very comfortable when worn due to the breathable soft lambskin pads which can even be removed to clean or replace. The MH40 seal out almost completely any external noises even when no music is playing. There is yet another 1.25 meter cable that comes with the MH40; it has a tiny remote volume control/microphone seamlessly built in to it for using the headphones with (say) an iPhone. For use with more serious amps, each cable has a 1/4” (6.3mm) gold-plated adaptor that can be snapped over its thinner 3.5mm oxygen-free copper plug. The cables themselves are a different color depending on the color of the MH40. For example, the black leather/black metal model comes with black cables, and the brown leather/silver model comes with silver-white cables.
A new pair of MH40 are packed in a sophisticated but simple black canvas case with the two cables stored in the middle in a beautiful small round black leather box that just as well could be used for holding fine jewelry. They come with a two year limited warranty. Their entire presentation is modern–albeit somewhat retro–fashionable, tasteful and very well thought out. I would rate the wife acceptance factor as 10 out of 10 and the range of ages of users who would find these attractive as very wide; I can’t imagine anyone not wanting a pair of MH40s as a gift. In fact Master & Dynamic offer a 1-hour delivery service within New York City, and sell gift cards (customizable with your own words) from $149–$458 for their various products. The MH40 are even sold at select Apple stores in the USA, including four such stores just in Manhattan alone.
Optional peripherals include the ‘Stand’, which Master & Dynamic also kindly let me use for this review, which is a simple, solid and elegant 1-foot high steel stand ($59) for displaying the MH40. As stated on their website, ‘Our stand is designed to display your headphones in the most elegant and utilitarian way, while maintaining the organization and beauty of your desk, studio or home.’ Exactly right. Another option is a new ‘Boom Mic’ ($129), a unidirectional noise-isolating microphone, that can be attached and rotated for greater clarity of sound when using the headphones for communication purposes. I did not try that out—yet, but plan to do so soon. All of Master & Dynamic’s products can be bought directly from them on their website, which itself is full of style and elegance in presentation and navigation.
How do the MH40 sound?
They yield a warm, dynamic but articulate sound, as opposed to a neutral/cool/crispy style, with ample bass but not at all of the booming kind. They are not edgy. The soundstage is modest in size but very nice. The MH40 clearly can be used with a wide variety of music, not just (say) classical, or just pop, or just acoustic live jazz. I could hear interesting details with ease such as the breathing of musicians in acoustic performances. A perfect example is ‘Bye- Bye, Blackbird’ from the 1959 studio recorded album ‘Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson’. The double-bass (coming from the left channel) was deep and articulate, and the tenor saxophone (mainly from the left channel) was airy and live sounding. The drums were coming from the right channel, and I could hear little odds and ends like drum sticks clicking.
A nice live recording example is the 2009 album ‘Three Fervent Travelers’ by ‘Time For Three’, in which you can really hear the musicians breathing away. I acquired that recording as a 24/88.2 FLAC file from HDtracks.com, the musicians consist of two violinists and one double-bassist (all classically trained). The album is a very entertaining mix of classical-folk, and perhaps one of the most interesting quotes about the group is by the conductor Sir Simon Rattle, who described them as, ‘Three benevolent monsters, monsters of ability and technique surely…Conveyers of an infectious joy I find both touching and moving’. Through the MH40 they certainly sounded articulate, joyful and earthy, complete with all their percussive mischief.
As another example, that also illustrates one of the pros in using headphones in general: I had been listening lately on my stereo system to an outstanding 1959 recording of Elvis Presley’s version of ‘Fever’ (I have it as a 24/96 FLAC file). The recording quality is remarkably natural, intimate and live sounding and it is one of Elvis’ earliest stereo recordings versus in mono. It seemed to be almost exactly based on the wonderful version of Peggy Lee from 1958 in which she had taken liberties with the lyrics (as well as the music); the original version was recorded by Little Willie John in 1956. Elvis appeared to be using exactly Peggy Lee’s lyrics and music, except, besides the slower tempo, I noticed an odd twist: in one part (one of my favorite), Peggy Lee sings,
Now you’ve listened to my story
Here’s the point that I have made. Chicks were born to give you fever
Be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade
They give you fever when you kiss them
Man, is she convincing when she sings it! Listening to Elvis, however, I could have sworn I heard him say ‘Now you’ve listened to my story Here’s the point that I have made Cats were born to give you fever Be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade’.
I was a bit baffled. I had friends visiting and was socializing so I did not have time to re-listen and focus to sort out what was really being said. Then some days later, in the middle of the night I could not sleep, and the Elvis lyrics problem came back to haunt me; I wanted to solve it. But I could not play my system loud in the middle of the night, so I put on my MH40 and listened to the Elvis song. What I clearly heard was,
‘Now you’ve listened to my story Here’s the point that I have made Cats were born to give chicks fever Be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade’.
So, in Presley’s version, men (cats) give women (chicks) fever, turning things all around. He even continues turning the tables, with the next line, ‘Oh me giva’ ya’ fever.’ Thanks MH40. Of course the next day when I turned on my system (at a reasonable volume) I could easily hear the correct lyrics too, and it sounded like a live concert. But the headphones allowed me to really focus, isolated from all else, and without disturbing anyone.
Now you’ve listened to my story. Here’s the point that I have made: There might be other good sounding closed headphones on the market in the same price range as the MH40, but it is doubtful that you will find any with all the extras you get with the MH40 including the solidity of construction and quality of components, the small size, weight, and portability, the fashionable, classy, and tasteful presentation and well thought out details and peripherals. And as a gift, they were born to give chicks (and cats) fever. Highly recommended.
Further information: Master & Dynamic