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What happens when an esteemed in-ear monitor (IEM) company decides to change course and make over-ear headphones? While it might seem simple, making the jump from compact in-ears to full-size headphones is no small feat. It involves a whole different approach to engaging the listener with a wide soundstage and open design compared to small, self-contained earbuds. It’s the driving question behind one of the most exciting personal audio gear releases of 2023: the Moondrop Venus.
Moondrop Labs, founded in 2015 in Chengdu, China, and colloquially known as “Moondrop,” became a darling of the IEM scene (and specialized vendors like Headphones.com) with popular releases like Blessing 2 and Variations. With Venus, the company’s second over-ear headphones after 2022’s Void, Moondrop leaves a more direct sound and demure styling behind and embraces a bold design and tuning designed to shear the veil between you and your music. At $599, it faces stiff competition from longstanding brands like HIFIMAN. Still, if you’re looking for open-back headphones that can reveal every nuance of your favorite tracks with airy aplomb, they’re a strong contender well worth considering.
The first thing to know about the Moondrop Venus is it uses planar-magnetic drivers. In contrast to dynamic drivers—which can efficiently (and often more affordably) push air and make up most of the best headphones for average listeners—the best planar-magnetic headphones can deliver incredible levels of detail, wide, enveloping soundscapes, and vanishingly low levels of distortion to deliver total clarity within your music.
While dynamic drivers use a conical, moving coil to generate sound (think a miniaturized version of that bass-pumping woofer you’re accustomed to seeing in a freestanding speaker), planar-magnetic drivers use a large flat sheet traced with conductive elements (in this case, silver) that is held poised by rows of powerful magnets. When electricity is applied, the diaphragm moves rapidly, creating sound. It’s an entirely different system, but when applied correctly, can result in some of the best sound you’ll hear in a pair of headphones. (And on planars you’re far less likely to hear that “farting” you can get playing bass-heavy music on inadequate drivers … unless you turn the music up to deafening levels.)
Check out the image above and you’ll see Venus’s 100mm drivers—a window into what provides you a portal into your playlists. They are roughly twice the surface area of dynamic driver audiophile heavy-hitters like the Sennheiser HD800S. Each is surrounded by 18 powerful magnets and is built into specialized cavities to minimize space and weight and to balance out the heavy magnetic pull of so many magnetics on its two-micron-thin diaphragm.
As you might imagine, with two massive drivers and three dozen high-powered magnets, the Venus isn’t exactly small. In fact, it seems clearly designed to attract attention. The chassis is completely made of metal finished in a matte silver that avoids fingerprints. The earcups are circular and large enough to encompass most ears. There’s a self-adjusting headband for comfort, and it works well, but these aren’t exactly headphones that will blend into the environment.
The grilles are the real stars of the show. Each earcup is finished with a milled faceplate that would be right at home in BioShock—if Andrew Ryan cared a little more about sound quality, that is. There’s a pattern of V’s cross-milled with angled stripes that gives the headphones a wholly unique, somehow sci-fi, somehow vintage appearance. There are a few too many exposed screws, however. The hints of “industrial” won’t quite jive with its other prevailing themes, but it’s clearly serviceable, which is a high point.
Despite its large size and heavy weight (roughly 600 grams), the Venus is surprisingly comfortable. It uses a self-adjusting headband trimmed in faux leather beneath a perforated metal arc to distribute its weight well and avoid creating sore spots on the top of your head. The ear cushions are leather-trimmed (possibly pleather, no official word from Moondrop on the materials used) and angled, tapering down toward the front of your ear. They’re plush and just thick enough to provide ample padding without extra bulk.
The fit also hits the sweet spot for clamp force. The earcups have a limited range of pivot and angle adjustments to achieve a proper seal. Once it’s in place, however, it’s stable: not too tight, not too loose. Compared to perhaps its most direct competitor, the $499 HIFIMAN Edition XS (a svelte 405g with distinctive oval earcups), it’s noticeably more secure.
Moondrop also uses an interchangeable cable design and provides two separate options in the box to accommodate more sources. Rated at 18Ω and 100dB/Vrms @1kHz in sensitivity, the headphones aren’t hard to drive, but you will need a small amplifier (or USB DAC-amp combo, like the iFi xDSD Gryphon or Questyle M15) to push them to their potential, so don’t expect to plug them into just your MacBook. I did most of my testing using the FiiO K7, which is a more affordable option and provided ample headroom. The first is a standard 3.5mm cable sleeved in braided black fabric. The second uses a 4.4mm balanced Pentaconn connection (a standard adopted by the latest DAC-amps and digital audio players) and a much more attractive translucent sleeve that reveals the silver-plated wires underneath. (The benefits of a balanced connection are typically more available power and theoretically less noise, but the Venus isn’t hard enough to drive where you should run out and buy a balanced amplifier.) Both connect to the headphones with 3.5mm mono jacks, the same as HIFIMAN, so finding replacements is easy should you ever find yourself craving an upgrade or in need of a repair.
The Venus is revealing in all the right ways. Moondrop tuned the headphones with an attention to detail—literally. In audiophile terms, detail retrieval is a headphone’s ability to pull those tiny nuances from music that make it sound vibrant and alive: the sound of a bow moving across a cello string; the texture of an oscillating synth; exactly how a drummer taps a cymbal and the nuance to tell if it’s a stick, mallet, or brush. Putting on the Venus after listening to a pair of mainstream headphones like the mids-centric Bose QC35 II is like removing a veil between you and your music that you may not have even known was there.
The sound is bright but not sharp. It reaches low into the bass but isn’t bass heavy. Vocals are natural, smooth, and airy—a standout but not a show-stealer all on their own. It’s a tuning emphasizing hearing everything in a track without sacrificing enjoyment for cold analytical listening. It would need a bit more bass to be considered balanced, but it’s close, and if you’re the sort to EQ, a slight boost to the low end thickens things out for pop and rock.
The planar drivers have no trouble reaching low and maintaining speed, delivering rich sub-bass with strong detail and engaging texturing. However, the bass on the Venus delves deep but tapers off before it gets into the meat of bass guitars. Compared to the HIFIMAN Sundara and Edition XS—notable for their own spacious, mid- and high-centric house sound—the Venus is a bit thinner. Still, it makes up for that with better clarity and their open, airy sound and smoother treble.
Judging by its wide 6Hz – 80kHz frequency response and graph that leans heavily toward the treble, you might expect the Venus to sound overly bright and too sharp to enjoy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Moondrop has incorporated a specialized waveguide system that prevents the high frequencies from overlapping and becoming overemphasized before they hit your ears (similar to the Fazor in some of my favorite, more expensive Audeze headphones, like the LCD-2, LCD-3, and even the ultra-premium LCD-5). This dramatically smooths out their sound, even compared to its competition from HIFIMAN. The result is a sparkly treble that brings out cymbals and acoustic guitar strings but replaces fatigue with air and spaciousness.
Imaging and soundstage are excellent. The Venus places each instrument, each vocalist, each audio cue in your video game on its own layer. It’s resolving and spacious enough to make every sound source perfectly audible, even in busy tracks or cacophonous multiplayer matches. There’s no masking or loss of detail from overwhelmed drivers. The soundstage is wide enough to feel immersive, outperforming the Sundara, but falls a touch short of the depth offered by the Edition XS.
On their own, the Venus plays best with acoustic and string-driven music. The strings in Johann Johannson’s A Model of the Universe or Eydis Evensen’s Wandering II were haunting and evocative. Other genres that rely on powerful bass, like hip-hop and metal, require a bit of EQ to fill out and bring up to form. D.R.E.A.M. by Jonny Craig sounded a bit anemic out of the box, its underlying bass line a bit too quiet to carry the song. Likewise, the blasting double kick drum intro of Atreyu’s My Curse lacked impact. Without touching anything, orchestral music plays to its natural strengths, highlighting its spaciousness and nuanced details. EQ allows it to deliver the best of both worlds, however, and breathes new life into dynamic genres like progressive and math rock.
While I did mention the Venus needing an amp to achieve optimal performance, needing power doesn’t necessarily mean these headphones need high volume. While listening at very low levels drops the bass even further, it only takes moderate levels to increase the headphone’s dynamic range. Like most headphones, the Venus sound “best” at an elevated output (a running trope in the audiophile community is that higher volume equals better sound). However, these headphones are also good for a pleasant, relaxed listen before bed.
The Venus is only the second pair of headphones ever released by Moondrop Labs, but you wouldn’t guess it based on its construction and sound quality. It’s entering a competitive market where consumers have tough choices on what sound profile will work best for them. It falls short on bass presence without applying your own EQ, which you could argue shouldn’t be necessary at this price point. But if you have the means to tweak (whether with software through EqualizerAPO and Peace EQ or hardware like the Schiit Audio Loki Mini+) you’ll find they’re quite resilient to a low-end bump. Even with its biggest competitors from HIFIMAN on hand, I reached for the Venus for its better fit and unique presentation of my favorite music. If you can get behind its tuning, the Moondrop Venus is a set that’s well worth searching out and getting lost with.