SoundMAGIC HP200 - Review
Disclaimer: The HP200 was given to me by SoundMAGIC for this review.
This is my first headphone review in a while and I must say it's really good to be back! The HP200 is the first full-size open-back headphone from SoundMAGIC. Back in October I reviewed the companies first full-size closed-back headphone - the HP100 and this has been one of my favourite all-round performers (for the money) ever since.
The HP200's design addresses pretty much all of the disappointments I had with the HP100's aesthetics. I loved a lot about the comfort and design of the HP100, but the excessive use of shiny (finger print magnet) plastic was a big let down for me. It even seemed like SoundMAGIC realised this because they included a cleaning cloth in the case. Well there are no such issues this time around. Visually I feel that SoundMAGIC have nailed the desirability factor this time. They have also gone a long way to improve the cable too, making this a considerably more solid package.
The HP200 is similarly priced to the equivalent AKG, Beyerdynamic and GermanMAESTRO models and it's £100 cheaper than the classic Sennheiser HD650. The big question is whether the HP200 can come out favourably against classic headphones from giant companies that have been loved for decades. Well as far as I'm concerned the HP200 certainly has the looks to crush the competition. With a sexy new metal grill it looks better designed and built than any other open-back headphones I've seen under £500, but It still has it's work cut out if it wants to win on sound quality, this competition is tough!
The first thing I noticed about the HP200 was, like the Sennheiser HD650, it doesn't sound like a typical open-back headphone. It has great detail and a spacious soundstage, but unlike many other open-back headphones, it doesn't sound weak or thin (I'm looking the AKG K701 and even Beyerdynamic DT880 here). Although admittedly the headphones that do sound thin kind of grow on you after while. The HP200's sound is surprisingly warm for an open-back, perhaps even more so than the Sennheiser HD650 and the HD650 already sounds like a warm version of the near-perfect, HD600. This bass body isn't so much of an issue with the HP200 however because the treble is also quite lively.
Although this slightly v'shaped signature works wonders with the open sound on many tracks, the treble can be it's Achilles heel. Whether you like your treble present and sparkly or subtle and laid back is going to dictate whether you love or hate this headphone. Well actually I would be surprised if anyone could really hate it. I myself recently bought the HD650 and I can see why so many people love it so much. I was blown away by it's signature and spacious sound. The HD650 is easily my favourite open-back headphone so far, but the HP200 is extremely close (both in excitement and signature). Only because the HD650 seems to suit Orchestral Soundtracks a little better does it get the crown from me, but that's only if I take the price difference out of the equation and it's still a very close call. I can see a lot of people preferring the HP200 if they like a little more excitement and sparkle to their high frequencies.
So the depth and weight of the HP200's bass stands up well against the very best open-back headphones at this end of the market. This is not only rather unusual, but it's especially impressive coming from a headphone costing just over £200 and a company that's never made an open-back headphone before. The HP200 manages a similar level of excellence with it's detail and soundstage as well. Midrange clarity is both bold and a little smooth. When driven from a good DAC and amplifier the authority, delicacy and poise are very impressive. Imaging is perhaps a little more dependant on a high quality source. On a good amplifier (like the HD650) it really shines, the throw is wide and the positioning feels natural and accurate.
Isolation from outside noises is similar to most open-back headphones, you'll hear quite clearly what people around you are saying even when the music is on (unless it's really turned up loud). Music leaking out is equally sieve-like, but it's not as bad as the most airy open-backs out there (like the Grado range or the AKG 701).
I have had quite a long time with the HP200 and that has meant a lot of time with different amplifiers (usually combined with DACs). The image below shows the HP200s with the Arcam rPAC, this was my source of choice in the initial stages of testing. As I was writing notes on my laptop it was a very convenient unit to use because it doesn't require power.
Very recently I received another Arcam DAC to play with; the rBlink. I have been sending music to it from my 'Apt-X' compatible Bluetooth phone and connecting it to the Ifi iCan headphone amplifier. It's sonic ability is not as inspiring as the Schiit combo, but it's a lot of fun to control decent quality music from a portable device. I will be reviewing this DAC pretty soon, but for now I will be playing with it and the HP200 quite a bit.
The bulk of my time with the HP200 was spent connected to the Schiit Modi & Magni desktop combo, this is currently my default setup at work. Despite being a little more pricey than the rPAC, requiring power and an RCA cable the sound is noticeably more impressive. They push the HP200 in a direction that's more detailed and airy, but other improvements include bass quality and power.
Most of these other hifi headphone separates have been less expensive than the headphones themselves so far, but lets go a bit mental and pair them with something that's considerably more. The £600, ESS-9018 Sabre DAC sporting Audiolab M-DAC also got some time driving the HP200s. For me this DAC and headphone amplifier is often now quite befitting of it's lofty price tag for headphone use, but that said it does do very nice things to a couple of my headphones and this is true of both the Sennheiser HD650 and SoundMAGIC HP200. There is something very enjoyable with the low frequency grunt to these two headphones here. The amplification is not the most smooth, but's bold and exciting sound with most genres.
The SoundMAGIC HP100 is the HP200s closed back cousin and they are different, but not as 'Night and Day' different as I was expecting. Yes the HP200 leak sound like crazy, but this doesn't seem to have affected their warmth in any way, in fact they actually sound more warm than the HP100. The bass is not as smooth as with the HP100, but it's got more body, especially when running directly from a portable player. Connected to a dedicated amplifier provides big benefits still of course, but I didn't think they sounded terrible from low power sources like tablets or phones.
The Beyerdynamic DT880 feels more open and revealing than the HP200. What the HP200 lacks here it makes up for with killer soundstage, bass body and excitement. The DT880 takes the comfort crown and possibly the durability award too, but I can't help but be drawn more to the HP200 for it's engaging and realistic sound over the Beyerdynamic. I realise that's a big testament to the SoundMAGIC's refinement - you should be impressed.
The AKG Q701 has been going up in my estimations recently after discovering a couple of interesting amplifiers. The AKG's sound is a sharper, brighter and more detailed one, but even with good amplification it cannot match the qualities of the HP200. Some compare the 701 to the great Sennheiser HD800, if there is any truth to this it's in the detail rendition, but what the AKG doesn't replicate is the bass body. The HP200 gets close to the detail levels of the HD800 while managing even higher levels of bass body.
The Sennheiser HD650's character is most similar to the HP200. Now this should interest a lot of people because the HD650 is a famously reference in it's balance and quality. The SoundMAGIC also has similar soundstage, detail and midrange, but a slightly more potent treble.
The Denon AH-D7000 was discontinued about a year ago and is rather hard to find these days, I mention here because of it's famous speaker-like, sub-bass rumble. It could be argued that this wobbly nature is undesirable, but I thoroughly enjoy it. Now there are times when the HP200 can deliver similarly interesting moments of deep wobble. For an open-back headphone I find this very special indeed, especially because the bass doesn't feel bloated or unrefined. It's also something I noticed from a Hifiman HE-400, which I only tried yesterday.
Here are some individual music tracks and how I felt the HP200 coped with them. Most tracks were listened to in CD format with lossless compression. All tracks are also available on Spotify, which on the 'premium' service are maximum quality MP3s and I find these highly acceptable.
Sum 41 (All Killer No Filler): "Fat Lip" - This pop song sounds energetic and very enjoyable on the HP200. Perhaps it's the slight push to the bass and treble that makes this so bold here, but at the same time it rarely feels too bright on the top end and feels neutral and clear enough to make all genres a little more exciting and render vocals in a very nice way.
Joe Kraemer (The Way Of The Gun): "The Setup" - There are lots of sounds here that feel naturally and nicely formed. Details are crisp and delicate. The openning drums are so powerful they deliver a real sub-bass wobble that a lot of headphones just can't seem to get.
Skrillex (Bangerang EP): "Right In" - The bass power on offer in the HP200 works wonders for EDM/Dubstep. Combined with a slightly bold, but not too offensive treble it's a potent mix, often leading to high levels of excitement for this kind of music. At times the treble can get out of control, but mostly because I like to push the volume for this music rather too high. Keep it moderately sensible and everyone should be happy.
Kittie (Spit): "Trippin" - The energy and presence works almost as well for Rock/Metal as it does with Electronic, Pop and Orchestral music. The general neutrality of the presentation and dynamic soundstage of the HP200's sound makes it a great jack of all trades headphone.
Beethoven (Symphony No. 7 In A Major): "Op. 92: II. Allegretto" - The HP200 delivers a nicely balanced and well rounded presentation. Up-tempo sections are nicely bold and energetic, while quiet passages are full of clear detail and great instrument rendition. There is a nice sense of transparency and soundstage is dynamic.
For those that don't already know: SoundMAGIC is a Chinese brand, so when you see 'made in China' written on the side it's not a bad thing here. The production for this headphone is still completely in-house, so they can keep a close eye on unit quality. I am almost as impressed by the design and build quality of the HP200 as I am with it's audio quality. Which is, to say, a lot. It's a very well thought out design for a company that really haven't been going for long, although most of that credit should go to the similarly shaped HP100. Construction wise the HP200's are pretty tough. This models uses just enough metal to make them look and feel good, whilst not bulking up the weight too much. Good quality plastics keep the weight down in other areas.
The included accessories (apart from the cable/s, which I will mention in a minute) are pretty much the same as the HP100. You get a snazzy hard case (which reminds me very much of the one you get with the V-Moda M-80), a warranty card, flight adaptor, 6.35mm adaptor and a carabiner hook. The only niggle I will mention here is that it seems a shame that the HP200's (again, like the HP100) almost fold down, but not quite. They sort of fold like the V-Moda M-100 (which is amazing), but the headband needs to be extended all the way first. If only SoundMAGIC could have folded the design a little better and then fitted them into the case that way, everything could have been a bit more amazing. As it is the case is not huge, I only mention this as a small point because the headphones can fold - so near, yet so far.
The coiled cable of the HP100 has thankfully gone the way of the Dodo, but it's not quite all sunshine. My complaint this time around is that the included straight cable is only 1.2m long, which isn't quite long enough for desktop use. This length screams portable use to me, now this is odd because these headphones should never be used outside. There is a 2m extension included in the box, but it's not a very nice cable and caused noticeable audio quality drop-out. Like the HP100, this model has a standard 3.5mm jack to connect the cable to the headphones. This is great, but this simplicity has been ruined by including a proprietary locking mechanism and thus no other replacement audio cables can be used. This is a growing trend and I can't see the point of it. Ideally the HP200's cable should have been a straight 2m or 3m, but perhaps I'm missing something here, so let me ask you readers a question: What length and type of cable would you choose for these headphones? (Please leave a comment to vote, hopefully this won't get too messy).
I found these headphones to be very comfortable! They are a little more heavy than the closed HP100 due to more metal being used, but the distribution of weight, headband cushioning and clamping force is still pretty much perfect to me. The pleather ear cups are by far the softest and most comfortable that I have tried for under £1000. My only complaint with them is that, since isolation is unnecessary, perhaps velour would have been better for keeping temperature down. The pads are plenty big enough to keep out of the way of your ears, but like the HP100 the depth of the driver is could cause a slight issue there. This is unlikely to cause discomfort for at least an hour, but if only the driver depth was a little higher this figure could have been ten times higher. This is the only thing that stops comfort from being perfect really. Wearing glasses with the HP200's did not cause any comfort or change the sound, also being open-back there is no isolation loss to worry about.
The hugely articulate ear-cups and very high levels of comfort that impressed me with the previous (HP100) model have thankfully been carried over to the new open-back HP200. Although I'm not totally convinced by pleather pads on an open-back headphones (velour would be better), they are extremely soft. Now that SoundMAGIC have added a slick metal grill and logo any feeling of cheap build quality is long gone. Actually I feel that they've really nailed the aesthetic desirability this time around. For me the HP200 is one of the prettiest open-back headphones under £500 around.
The HP200 reminds me of the famous Sennheiser HD650 for several reasons. The first being the bold metal grill (which I love on both models), but it's the excitement and low end sonic character that really makes me think of the HD650 and that's no bad thing. The major difference with the HP200 is a greater presence and sparkle in the higher frequencies. I can see this aspect being the biggest deciding factor for people finding nirvana with the HP200. It makes some music more exciting than the HD650 to me, but in other cases the balance of the HD650 felt better. It is true that the treble of the HP200 can be EQ'd down much more successfully than the HD650's can be EQ'd up, however a lot of people will not want to go do down that road. Now I personally slightly prefer the sonic balance of the venerable HD650 (mostly because I'm a movie soundtrack nut), the HP200 is the only other open back headphone I've heard that comes remotely close. If you take the price into consideration (the SoundMAGIC being over £100 cheaper) then I can't praise the HP200 enough. It's a bargain, it's easily the best bang for buck you'll get from an open-back pair of headphones.
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Posted 16th May 2013