Headphones, like studio monitors, are the pizza of music gear; you've got a million people making them, and except to connoisseurs, most of them seem pretty good until you compare them to something better. So when M-Audio recently entered the headphone market, it wasn't exactly front-page news, but considering the success of the company's studio monitors, it was nonetheless intriguing. To quench the curiosity, I tested two disparate sets of M-Audio's latest headgear.
Made for studio tracking, mixing and just plain ol' listening, the Studiophile Q40 joins a crowded mid-priced headphones space. What immediately sets them apart from most is that the cord screws in and out of the left cup, so you can replace it if it's damaged without scrapping the whole headphone set. You also get a detachable ¼-inch plug, so you can use the Q40 with ⅛-inch and ¼ inch jacks, and a pleather carrying pouch.
The Q40's frequency response of 10 to 20,000 Hz isn't as large as some phones, but it covers the human audible range, so it suits me — being a human — just fine. My first impression after listening to a lot of familiar music was that the Q40 presents a large and pleasant sound with a wide stereo image. However, they don't score that well for comfort. They pinched my melon enough to be uncomfortable after an hour. Part of that may be an effort to isolate outside noise by fitting closely around the ears. The Q40's sealed backings provide slightly greater sound isolation than average studio cans.
After comparing the Q40 with two sets I know better — the venerable Sony MDR-V600 ($129) and the less known but very worthy Equation Audio RP-21 ($149) — on a selection of favorite tunes, I concluded that the Q40 phones, like many monitors, have a bit of their own sound; they color tracks with a bit of a bass boost and an overall punchiness that gives music a bit of a “rounder” sound than that of the MDR-V600, which has more of a classic, transparent sound. The R-21 landed somewhere in between, with a bass-y yet also transparent sound.
Whether you'd want the Q40 or a more transparent set comes down to personal taste. I enjoy their sound very much and feel comfortable mixing with them as long as I test mixes in a variety of other listening environments and on low-grade consumer headphones, which you should do no matter what headphones you have. Of course, sound preference and comfort vary from person to person. I can say the Q40 cans are definitely worth a look, but try before you buy.
The IE-40 set corners a whole other market. They are high-end and also provide specific advantages of earphones: extreme sound isolation, which lets you mix accurately at lower volumes or play live while listening to monitor mixes or backing tracks in the earphones; and unobtrusiveness, which helps you perform unfettered.
I've used many pairs of earphones playing live drums with a band and listening to a click and backing tracks in the earphones. IE-40's sound isolation (spec'ed at 26 dB) leaves nothing to be desired; they effectively work as earplugs, drowning out the outside sound enough to protect your hearing and comfortably listen to the earphones while still hearing the band and your own playing. You get the best sound isolation and comfort using the replaceable foam (rather than the rubber) earpieces, and you may even want to spring for the custom-made ear molds available from third parties.
For their sound, I set expectations high, because the IE-40s use triple-driver technology from Ultimate Ears, whose own earphones I knew from experience to rank among the best in the world. The triple drivers separate the frequency spectrum in three ways, and you can hear the difference over other earphones, as well as traditional headphones. The IE-40's sound blew away the three aforementioned pairs, and I would certainly mark them as mix-worthy — the earphone equivalent of high-end studio monitors. As with live performance, the IE-40s can also save your hearing if you pump up the volume when mixing; you get the sensation and detail of loud monitors while playing back at lower levels than you would with regular studio cans. Also, a helpful limiter attachment saves you from spikes in volume.
The IE40s are extremely portable, but gigging musicians, be especially careful with earphones; they're naturally not as durable as most road gear. If the IE-40 isn't the best pair of earphones available, it's certainly among the top few. And if it's too pricey, M-Audio has the IE-30 ($299), IE-20 XB ($249) and IE-10 ($129) — that may dip down in audio quality but still could do you well.
STUDIOPHILE Q40 > $179.95
Pros: Big sound with heavy bass response and wide stereo image. Keeps details even at low levels. Detachable cord for convenience and easy replacement.
Cons: Not as transparent as comparable headphones. Pinches the noggin somewhat.
IE-40 > $499.95
Pros: Fantastic, full-range sound with stellar frequency separation. Excellent sound isolation. Includes limiter attachment. Eminently portable.
Cons: Expensive for something as potentially fragile.