The single best non-essential tech item--like, not a laptop or smartphone--that you can buy is a really good pair of headphones.
V-Moda's M-100 headphones, announced a few hours ago, are big and fairly expensive and kind of divisively designed. I've been using them for a week or so and they are the only new tech item I've used in the past few months that I've actually made other people use. The new iPhone and iPods are very nice, and Windows 8 tablets are ballsy and interesting, but I haven't actually grabbed coworkers and demanded they try those things. I've been reviewing digital audio gear for awhile, but the hardware has lately seemed unimportant, compared with the revolution of stuff like Rdio and Spotify. Who cares about a headphone amp, really, when you can listen to any song ever made? The exciting stuff is in software and services, I'd say. New headphones, whatever, spend a hundred bucks and you'll get something fine. It's a means to an end.
But the M-100s brought it all back, that old wonder that music could sound this good. When you can get this kind of quality for this kind of money, why are we bothering with anything else?
Cheap headphones mask the music, ruin the music, without the listener even realizing. They exaggerate screechy, tinny highs, or artificially boost the lows at the expense of balance. They muddy the mids. They are not "good enough," not when you can get legitimately great-sounding audio equipment for under a hundred bucks. You bought an iPhone, or a Galaxy S III, or a Lumia? Those are startlingly good audio devices. You're paying $300 up front and $75 a month for that phone, and it's worth it. You can get Rdio or Spotify and listen to any song ever made. You can watch music videos, TV shows, and movies in 720p. The sound output on those phones is universally excellent--not perfect, an audiophile will tell you, but what's more pressing is that what's there is being totally wasted when you use throwaway headphones.
This isn't a snob thing. Try the M-100s. You don't think, well, okay, these sound good. You feel differently. It's like you saw the world through filthy glasses, covered in hair and dust and finger grease and tomato sauce splatters, and then you cleaned them. So that's what this song sounds like, you'll think.
All consumer tech is about luxury, really. Really good audio is a cheap way to feel like your life is luxurious. A hundred bucks and your head can be filled with infinitely wonderful sounds, forever and ever. It triggers pleasure zones, releases happy neurotransmitters that make you feel good. It's a little thing that's not a little thing.
V-Moda is a small company out of Hollywood, California that is perhaps the most diligent audio accessory maker on the planet. They make one new product a year. That's it. They're well known to the biggest audio freaks on the planet, because they don't just comb through audiophile forums looking to figure out what people want--they ask. They crowdsource ideas. Their return rates are very, very low. Every component, every material is chosen after weeks or months of testing, personally, by maybe two guys. Val Kolton, the founder of the company, traveled back and forth to Japan to listen to dozens of potential drivers. They tossed aside plastic in favor of good, honest metal and leather and fabric. The M-100s spent more than three years in development. Not that Sennheiser and Shure and Audio-Technica aren't serious--they just make things in bulk, and none of them have a CEO who can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various types of air regulation as regards noise isolation. V-Moda's brand of obsession is Apple-level crazy. Good crazy.
And oh, man, was it worth it. The clarity of these things is unbelievable--you hear instruments you didn't know were there, subtleties in the growl of a singer's voice you'd never picked up on before. They block out sound precisely, regulating air so as not to leak audio into your surroundings. (These are noise-isolating, meaning they form a natural seal around your ears, rather than noise-cancelling, which blast another noise at you intended to drown out the outside. Noise-cancelling is good for planes, bad for sound quality.) But it's the balance that does it for me. Senior Editor Paul found them a little bassy--V-Modas are always a bit bassier than, say, Grados--but I like a slight bass boost in my music, and certainly the bass never overpowers the mids or highs. The headphones give your music a fullness and richness you may have never heard before. Music sounds downright creamy on these things. It makes you realize that gimmicks, like the Beats by Dre's absurdly bass-heavy balance, won't ever be as good as a bunch of audio obsessives sourcing the absolute best drivers and cups and materials.
A description of sound quality can only be useful up to a point. Trust me on this: they sound extraordinary. Your ears will smile. Your mouth too, probably.
The cable that goes from the M-100s to your phone or stereo or whatever is braided fabric reinforced with Kevlar, pliable but sturdy as hell. You can plug it into either earcup, and there's a little tiny plug that goes into the earcup hole you're not using, to keep dust out and eliminate the tiniest leak of noise. The cable has a built-in splitter to share music with friends--you can daisy-chain them together for silent subway dance parties. They're light, only 280g, but don't feel delicate in the least. You can bend the headband completely flat without snapping it in two, or drop the headphones repeatedly on unforgiving ground without risking breakage. The cups fold, smoothly and precisely, towards the headband, to take up less space. There's a little click when you push them into place. Val told me they'd experimented repeatedly to get the sound of that "click" just right. That's attention to detail.
The M-100s aren't for everyone. I don't much care for the look of them--they're not garish, but they are a little loud for my Puritanical East Coast taste--and they're listed at $310, which is not nothing (though they compete with those costing two or three times as much). The price will go down--audio accessory prices are notoriously fragile, so I wouldn't be surprised if in a few months Amazon is selling the M-100s for $250 or $225. And I might've preferred some of the extras, like the hard-shell case, the bonus cable, the 1/4-inch jack, were optional, to bring the price down. I'll probably never use that stuff. As is, they're fairly priced, it's just that not everyone wants to drop $300 on headphones.
Even at $310, though, there's nothing I'd recommend more. The Sennheiser Momentum costs more and doesn't fold, which makes it not very portable. The full-sized Beats by Dre costs $300 and is widely dismissed for a lack of clarity and wildly unbalanced sound. AKG and Focal and Shure all make competing headphones, but they don't fold, and some of them are open-back (meaning sound leaks out, meaning they are unusable in public). The M-100 is great for normal people, for listening to Spotify on your phone just as much as plugging into a receiver with an (included) 1/4-inch adapter. "There's no reason not to buy the M-100," Mike Berk over at Sound + Vision told me. (You can read S+V's full review here, if you want the audiophile take.)
But here's the thing: it's not even necessary to spend that much! The M-100s are great, but you can get that same feeling with a whole mess of other, sometimes cheaper, options. The M-80s, the slightly older and smaller on-ear version of the over-the-ear M-100s, are $165 at Amazon, and also bonkers good. Mike Berk at Sound + Vision told me, "I think there's no better headphone at that price point." Or go cheaper! The Wirecutter recommends these Audio Technica headphones, at $124. Or go in-ear--I use the Klipsch Image S4, which I love and have used for years, and cost sixty bucks. That's the cost of two sets of garbage SkullCandys or awful plastic Apple earbuds, which will break, and which you will hate.
Treat yourself, guys. Good audio is a delicious melty treat for your brain.
Product: V-Moda Crossfade M-100
Category: Over-the-ear headphones
Price: $310, at the moment
Cool bonus: Hard-shell protective case, extra cable with microphone
Rating: A clear buy, if you have the cash
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