V-Moda M-100 - Review
The M-100 has been rumoured and eagerly awaited since the V-Moda M-80 brought a great mix of audio and build quality, form and style back in August of last year (2011). The sound may have been impressive for it's size (and price) but that tiny frame was an issue for some, myself included. I was not alone in wishing for a circumaural version to improve the comfort of an otherwise great portable headphone... and now we seem to have exactly that.
I signed up for one of the first pre-orders, designated as VTF-100 and here it is. On the headphone itself it's simply marked as M-100 and I'm told this is the exact model that will go on sale, no further tweaking of design, specification or sound. At the moment there is a second run of pre-orders available to sign up for on the V-Moda site, which should ship before Christmas.
As well as the usual V-Moda goodies the M100 also brings a dual sided removable cable, a fold-able design, a beautifully tiny case, a new matt black option and 50mm dual diaphragm drivers (although the rest of the specifications is a little mysterious). Despite my comfort issues with the the M-80 it has been my mainstay work headphone for the past 7 months! So can the M-100 bring less pain and an even better sound?
The M100's sonic signature is one of deep and powerful bass, more so than the M-80 and perhaps a little too powerful in the wrong places to be considered a true hifi headphone. The mid-tones feel quite recessed at times due to this upper bass emphasis so I see this appealing more to the 'DJ' / 'bass-head' crowd. If it's not the strongest bass it can't be that far off. Considering where it's being pushed, combined with the isolation gives an enveloping effect that is either deeply impressive or just too boomy and fatiguing for musical enjoyment - depending on what you like. For me this is going in the wrong direction from the smaller M-80, despite the soundstage opening up. In fact for a closed back headphone, that improves on isolation, the three-dimensionality of the imaging is really rather impressive.
The mid-range being rather in the background will disappoint some as it takes sparkle away from areas like detail and vocals. It feels a little dull here and is less resolving of the finer details as a result, even feeling muddled at times. It feels like this sound is trying to be several things at once and not really finding a focus, there is speed here but restrained under a ton of power. There is warmth here, but I can't described it as exactly smooth. I did find enjoyment with more dynamic and bold Electronic music (EDM?), but switching to Rock, Metal or Pop and it's like listening through mud by comparison. I have experimented a lot with EQ adjustments everywhere I can (phone, tablet, itunes, Foobar and JRiver) and it certainly sounds better as a result, but I just can't seem to bring the sound to a particularly enjoyable place.
This EQ adjustment from JRiver, while connected to the Audiolab M-DAC, is probably my most successful so far. A little more of a subtle push of the mid-tones, with a careful reduction of the bass as well. This made the sound almost as enjoyable as the M-80 without EQ adjustment. It brought out much more detail, mostly suppressed the muddy feeling and really made it possible to enjoy that rather awesome soundstage, but it didn't turn them into a great hifi/audiophile headphone. These EQ adjustments are all well and good, but I don't like feeling that I have to do them, especially as much as this.
This iTunes modification had the (relative) effect of reducing the bass and bringing the mid-tones closer to a more neutral sounding pair of headphones, but it easily made the highs over powering and I had to keep changing it depending on the music. Most of the enjoyable bass was lost when the nasty upper emphasis disappeared and it made the presentation feel on the thin and brittle side.
The EQ adjustments available with Android applications such as 'Power Amp' (above) are pretty great (I'm sure IOS has similar goodies). Spotify wasn't quite so accommodating though and I'm sure other software / equipment exists that also lacks in this area. Even if you have the option available changing it for every application and switching settings for different headphones / different music illustrates my issues with EQ as a solution.
The M-100 behaves well with portable players like phones and MP3 players directly, both in terms of volume and general audio quality (respective of the above statements). In this regard it's pretty similar to it's smaller sibling, the M-80 Connecting the M-100's to some cheaper USB DAC/amps from the likes of Fiio and Audinst did offer audio quality improvements, but not quite to the levels that I was hoping for. Stepping up to things like the Yulong D100 mkII or the Fostex HP-A3 (apox. £300/$400) saw much better improvements, but still not as promising compared to other headphones.
The Audiolab M-DAC gave a larger boost to the M-100. It's audio quality reaching levels similar to the M-80 although still requiring EQ adjustment. Perhaps the most impressive presentation that I managed to squeeze out of the M-100 was with the Fostex HP-A8, considering this machine is nearly ten times the price of the headphones I'm certainly not suggesting that this is a reasonable option. Again I found good reason to EQ the sound, but less so here.
V-Moda M-80: On music without much high frequency detail the M-100's sound almost dark because the bass is so overpowering. In reality the response is pushed at both ends (more 'v-shaped' than the M-80). The upper mid-range of the M-100 seems to have more punch to it, perhaps this is how it's trying to be more 'hifi'? If so I'm not convinced because the highs sound on the edge of fatiguing at times (just like the bass can be). With so little emphasis in the mid-range compared to everything else there is a strong feeling of colouration with the M-100. This is somewhat confusing considering a 'DJ' model already exists in the V-Moda range, that and the rather massive hype behind the M100's as an 'audiophile' headphone that follows the M-80 led to a big shock when I first heard them.
The M-100's isolation is improved a little over the M-80 perhaps due to the padding sitting around, rather than on, the ear and the seal being better and more reliable. Sound leakage is about the same, but the soundstage does feel better and this is quite an achievement considering the improvement in the isolation.
Comfort is a tricky one, it does sit around the ear so the initial feeling is much better, but the padding touches the outer edge of the ears. The lack of depth to the driver spacing means they are continuously pressing in on the ears in all directions and combined with the increased clamping force they get painful for me in less than an hour.
Here are some music tracks and how I felt the M-100 coped with them. These are tested in lossless format (where possible). During computer use these were played through JRiver's MC17 player, using WASAPI event style to output to different DAC/amps via a generic USB cable. Phone's and other portables were also tested.
Dvorak: "Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53" - I'm pretty sure that the violin is supposed to be the main attraction here, I mean it says so in the title right. Well without adjustment it sounded almost like a background instrument it was so recessed. With EQ however (see above) and connecting the M-100's to the M-DAC this sounded very enjoyable indeed!
Natalie Imbuglia: "Left Of The Middle" - Pop music and female vocals can sound pretty great here with EQ, without it I get the sensation of a heavily recessed and muddied mid-range compared to a nice, neutral pair of headphones. I pushed the 2Khz range up by 4-6dB with good results for most music, but especially here it was needed.
Butch Clancy: "Diamonds Are Forever" - Fast dynamic and bright music like this sound pretty great, even without much/any EQ adjustment. With monstrously powerful thumping bass like this I was expecting it to be unbearable without EQ'ing (bass down, or the mid-range up) but this sound starts to make more sense with music like this.
System Of A Down (Toxicity): "Science" - Vocals with this band are presented extremely forward so only sound slightly recessed here, but sounds like guitar sound almost like they are playing underwater without any kind of EQ adjustment and that's even on a fast amp like the M-DAC.
Alan Silvestri (Beowulf): "Beowulf Slays The Best" - Almost as much as with Classical this music required a good offset of EQ. Without it the drums became loose and boomy, the wind instruments have very little bite to them
Rodrigo Y Gabriela (11:11): "Santo Domingo" - Straight out of the Audiolab M-DAC and without EQ applied this track felt very muffled and like it's echoing through a concert hall, which is insane. With EQ on the guitar really comes alive and with what bass is left over I would say that this sounds really neutral, detailed and engaging.
FEATURES & BUILD
The M-100's feature a cable connection on each ear cup, meaning you can plug the cable into whichever side suits you, or you can have a cable in each side - connected to different sources. This is a very nice touch!
Not such a nice touch is a new locking mechanism, which I see no point for. This lock is not actually used on any of the included cables, it'll probably be for the optional coiled cable (similar to the SoundMAGIC HP100). Also like the HP100 this means that almost no other cables will fit, even though it's a standard 3.5mm terminal underneath. Being stuck with the the V-Moda cables is not ideal. The main, orange 'one button' cable here is hard, tangles easily and is prone to scratchy cable noise.
This M-100 model came with two other cables. A 'SharePlay' cable (which the final production model will include), this allows you to connect another pair of headphones to it and as the name suggests you can share your music with a friend, another nice touch!. The second cable is called a 'Boom Pro Mic' cable, which is a cable that includes a microphone on a bendable stalk next to the headphone connection. This could be a nice touch for those wanting to do some gaming or skype calls with the M-100. Unfortunately this one is not included for free with the final production M-100. Both of these cables were 2m long, a nicer length for desktop use. They also felt nicer than the 'standard' 1.3m cable, tangling much less easily and were smoother to the touch - creating less noise against clothing as a result.
The included hard-case is great, it's really small and the headphones can even be fitted in there without detaching the cable. There is even room for another spare cable and the adaptor. Considering that this case is actually smaller than the one for the M-80 while the headphones themselves are so much bigger is really quite special. The folding mechanism and those hinges really work well and make a very satisfying click when unfolded.
I have always loved the styling of V-Moda headphones and this one, with the matt black and orange tint is my favourite yet. The ability to customise the shields with your own artwork is a real bonus, it's been on all previous V-Moda models but this is the first time that I have taken advantage of it. After making your artwork you just need to download a guide image, place it inside the green line, send it to the V-Moda customs department and viola! This service is free with the current M-100 pre-order.
The Construction of the M-100, like all V-Moda headphones, is really impressive. There is a lot of metal here and even with the added hinge for the folding mechanism, there is little to take issue with. The M-100's feel like they could go through a war unaffected, hey maybe they can because they do pass military grade durability testing.
Externally the M-100 is mostly a well thought out and fantastically built headphone. They come with a great case and a couple of cables. The dual sided attachment for the cable is pure genius. Comfort is generally up on the M-80 although it still adds pressure to the outer ears which can eventually get irritating. It makes a great pair of ear warmers for the cold weather in the UK at the moment, but summer might not be so friendly. Isolation is good, a bit better than the M-80, but sound leakage is about the same (average). Most of these little details are a case of 'so near - yet so far' - perfection wise, but this will be a rather personal thing. If you can live with these issues, and most are fairly small, then it's really a great headphone in general use.
Sound wise I find the M-100 a very difficult one to recommend. The hype for this headphone has been ridiculous - if you live on head-fi.org anyway - and perhaps that effected my ultimate opinion, but I have sat on this review for a while now and my thoughts are not shifting. I really wanted to love the M-100, the M-80 is one of my favourite portable headphones ever! I expected at least the same adrenaline rush with the M-100, but I just can't seem to enjoy much music with them. Perhaps this is nirvana for bass-heads, but even then I'm not so sure. The bass presentation seems rather strange - it's very deep, which is great, but the emphasis is strongly biased towards the upper end. The effect is extreme and there is a muddy feeling in the mid tones, which make the sound recessed or coloured. Perhaps this is purely due to that upper bass thump, but EQ'ing it down doesn't turn the M-100's sound into anything that I would call great at this price. The upper ranges don't fare much better either, there is a brightness in the upper mid-range that I don't want to push much further and yet there just in't much sparkle here at all.
The word audiophile has been thrown around a lot by people talking about the M-100 so far. Now I know some people hate the word 'audiophile', to be honest I am among them. I thought that it meant people who like a clean, airy sound that has transparency, perhaps neutrality and most definitely detail. If that's what you were hoping for from the M-100 you could be extremely disappointed. I expected at least some of those qualities. I knew we would get some power in the bass, but unfortunately that's all I am hearing - blistering thumps with someone singing in the next room.
Now I am being overly hard on the M-100 here, is it totally awful? No. I'm sure it can be enjoyable for casual listeners or bass-heads. It's OK for movies and games, but not stellar there either I'm afraid. EQ makes it more acceptable, sometimes great but it's not an answer, nor should it have to be. As a fashion headphone it's still one of the best out there, but my big problem comes from it being described as 'audiophile' or 'best mid-tier under $500', it's neither of these things. Nor is it a decent successor to the M-80, it's a step in the wrong direction and there are just too many other headphones out there that do warm, smooth, hifi or audiophile presentations much more convincingly and for less money.
Samsung Galaxy Note II
Google Nexus 7
Dell Vostro laptop
Yulong D100 mkII
Epiphany Acoustics EHP-O2D
Posted 11th November 2012