Headphones Awards – Q1 2013 (Part 1) : AKG K451, SoundMagic E10, Beyerdynamic DTX 101iE, Sony XBA-2iP, Panasonic RP-HTX7

3/9/2013 9:07:59 AM

Smartphones, mp3 players, tablets: all need a decent set of headphones. This once humble market sector is now an industry behemoth

Product of the year

Best portable on-ears: $75-$150

AKG K451

Price: $120

AKG K451, the best portable on-ears: $75-$150

AKG K451, the best portable on-ears: $75-$150

In last year’s Awards, AKG had a Product of the Year on its hands in the shape of the K450s, and now it’s done it again. The 451s tick all the boxes a pair of headphones designed for portables should: the earpieces are slim, sturdy and adjustable while the soft earcups twist and fold inwards. The K451s are compact and easy to carry in your bag (a carry case is also supplied). Smartphone users will rejoice at the inclusion of an additional cable that has volume controls and an in-line mic.

We took the K451s for a stroll around town. Their lightweight build is comfortable, while a snug fit around your ears and head ensures they stay put. They didn’t make our ears to hot, either. But the real joy is found in the K451s’ sound. Musically, they’re simply exceptional. Play a ripped-from-CD Where is Everybody? by Nine Inch Nails and the thumping beats and distorted bass lines are delivered with plenty of bite, and the K451s do a great job of separating all the parts. They go loud easily too, with that innate weight and authority keeping the synths in check.

They’re forgiving with lower-bitrate material as well – so if you have any legacy material you downloaded from iTunes back in the day, they won’t show it up too much.

The K451s’ deftness with vocals is best illustrated with the likes of the highly amusing BBC Radio 4 series Cabin Pressure – all the important nuances are conveyed with clarity and crisp detail, while a voice-led track such as Adele’s Someone Like You displays all the emotion you could want.

A highly successful update

Their agility and timing makes the K451s an enthusiastic-sounding pair of headphones and every bit the successful update to the K450s.

That character, combined with their excellent build and compact size, makes them a must-audition pair of cans and an incredible Product of the Year for 2012.

Best in-ears up to $60

SoundMagic E10

Price: $52.5

SoundMagic E10, the best in-ears up to $60

Sound Magic E10, the best in-ears up to $60

The E10s were something of a sensation in last year’s Awards – they wowed us then with their enchantingly exuberant performance, and it’s the same story this year.

They might have had a few cosmetic tweaks, but the E10s seem to let the music go where it wants. You get a lovely, airy presentation with finely detailed rhythms and excellent stereo imaging. They’re not as bassy as some, but that’s not a bad thing – it simply makes for tighter, faster sound.

The fact that you can get this level of performance for just $52.5 is nothing short of amazing. It you crave excitement from your portable, the Sound Magic E10s are unbeatable.

Best in-ears $60-$120

Beyerdynamic DTX 101iE

Price: $97.5

Beyerdynamic DTX 101iE, the best in-ears $60-$120

Beyerdynamic DTX 101iE, the best in-ears $60-$120

Like the MMX 101iEs below, these scooped a gong last year too. There are lots of great earphones around, but these are perhaps the best performance-per-pound proposition of the lot.

Your money buys you a beautifully balanced performance with sparkly, controlled treble and the kind of bass that not only underpins and solidifies the presentation, but adds a lovely fullness to vocals.

The dynamic shifts of Nick Cave’s The Road OST are handled with ease, but there’s punchy, giddy excitement to be had, too, as a quick spin of Friendly Fires’ Pala album quickly proves. They’ll happily turn their hand to anything you might throw at them.

Best in-ears $120-$180

Beyerdynamic MMX 101iE

Price: $150

Top tips: most earphones come with a selection of different tips. Try them all until you get a good seal in your ear canal. The best seal gives you the best bass

Top tips: most earphones come with a selection of different tips. Try them all until you get a good seal in your ear canal. The best seal gives you the best bass

The MMXs are a mic-enabled version of the DTX 101 iEs. Don’t dismiss them as pricier for the sake of it, though – these are superior sounding buds that add weight and greater dynamics to an already impressive delivery. There’s a smidge more detail and drive too.

They might not deliver seismic bass, but they are unflappable and great at filling out vocals.

While the lack of volume controls on the mic-remote unit might not be to everyone’s taste, the one-button system works with non-Apple smartphones – so more users can also enjoy the brilliant sound. And in-ear headphones this good really do deserve to be enjoyed by everyone.

Best in-ears $180-$300

Sony XBA-2iP

Price: $195

Sony XBA-2iP, the best in-ears $180-$300

Sony XBA-2iP, the best in-ears $180-$300

The XBAs here and below are new entries in this year’s honors. They come from Sony’s mid to upmarket Prestige range of earphones, and are ‘balanced armature’ models, designed to increase efficiency and go louder using less power.

The sound quality from the 2iPs is, simply excellent. Santigold ’s The Keepers in 320kbps sounds tuneful and exciting: we can’t fault their agility or precision, and their open, spacious delivery allows for plenty of detail from top to bottom of the frequency range.

The in-line remote/microphone is easy to get at – it’s placed just down from the left earpiece and call quality is good while the fit is suitably snug.

Best in-ears $300+

Sony XBA-3iP

Price: $337.5

Living with it: try running the cable over the back of your ears: this reduces cable noise as you move, and makes the buds less likely to pop out

Living with it: try running the cable over the back of your ears: this reduces cable noise as you move, and makes the buds less likely to pop out

The Sony ear-buds above are clearly no slouches and that’s even more the case with the next model up, these XBA-3iPs. These ones contain three balanced armature drives one tweeter, one full-range and one mid-bass which is reflected in their size.

But to criticize them for being a little bulky is churlish. These earphones sound fantastic.

Their high frequencies are crisp and expressive, while the low-frequencies never sound tubby or overblown. Elsewhere there’s a lovely balance that makes the 3iPs effortlessly engaging. Call quality, similarly, is top-notch.

These are the best in-ears at this price level we’ve heard – no question about it. if you want true hi-fi on the go, your search ends here.

Best portable on-ears up to $75

Panasonic RP-HTX7

Price: $52.5

These Panasonic cans were a huge surprise in last year’s Awards, and we are no less impressed with them this year, either.

It’s not that Panasonic is a company not best known for headphones – in fact it has a fairly substantial line-up of decent units. But it would be true to say that we’d never heard a truly good pair from Panasonic until these arrived in our testing rooms.

Pop on these retro-looking cans (there are six colors to choose from) and the leather-effect ear-cups create a seal around your ears that naturally blocks a decent amount of outside noise. The overall fit is a perfect blend of firmness and comfort.

The secret to their success lies in their sonic balance. Vocals are clear; bass is weighty and treble is distinct, but not harsh

A rainbow of colors: these cans sound great, and they look fun as well: you can accessorize your ears with a choice of six funky colors

A rainbow of colors: these cans sound great, and they look fun as well: you can accessorize your ears with a choice of six funky colors

Good for use at home and on the move

At 1.2m, the standard cable is the perfect length for portable listening (they’re closed-back, too – so won’t leak sound on your commute), but you also get a 2m extension cable a 6.3mm adapter for home use.

The secret to the RP-HTX7’s success lies in their sonic balance. Vocals are lovely and clear, bass is weighty but resists getting overbearing, and treble is distinct without ever sounding harsh. In fact, nothing sticks out more than it should.

Detail levels, too, are impressive for the money. You get all the introspections and delicacy of acoustic numbers such as Bon Iver’s Holocene, but the HTX7s are also capable of the kind of punch and control to keep Van Halen’s latest metal masterpiece both exciting and listenable.

It isn’t easy to get affordable on-ear headphones right – we’ve heard enough decidedly poor pairs to be extremely confident of that. Indeed, the fact that nothing we’ve heard this year came close to beating the RP-HTX7s proves it. Nevertheless, in this instance, Panasonic has managed it in serious style.

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