V-Moda's been seriously edging for the audiophile crowd lately -- namely with its Crossfade M-80 on-ear headphones, the VAMP headphone amp for the iPhone 4/4S, and a soon-to-be disclosed followup dubbed as Vamp Versa. That brings us to its soon-to-be released M-100 headphones, which haven't really been a secret since their inception, making them a special set. Unlike many companies who strive for secrecy in regards to upcoming products, V-Moda's taken a drastically different approach with its latest cans, with owner Val Kolton stating that they're effectively the first crowd-sourced set of headphones.
Many headphone lovers out there likely know that Kolton's been heavily in contact with the Head-Fi community, hoping to craft the best sounding, looking and fitting ear-gear possible. As he puts it, "the easter egg and inside joke is that the [M-100 headphones] can actually stand up. It is the first headphone that we know of that 'stands above the rest' and all others fall down/crawl. It also can stand on top of a few other new brand's models almost like Cirque De Soleil." It may be hard to tell based on the fashion-focused looks, but the company is adamant that its audio gear goes through more stringent research and testing than some of the biggest names out there, and that it'll show in the end products. Most notably, its TrueHertz testing where, for the M-100, "six points from 5hZ to 12kHz are measured to be within [its] obsessive quality control levels." According to Kolton, most companies only check at 1Khz, and allow for much wider variances. He followed up stating that "like fine wine, a headphone is only as good as its fit (taste buds) and its driver variances (grapes/cork). To us, all brands advertising 'HD' sound [aren't being forthright] unless they believe or even know these key components are "'fugazi.'"
V-Moda M-100 (hands-on)
For perspective, the M-100 is essentially the third iteration of the Crossfade LP over-ear headphones. Aside from a few tweaks to the design, it's packing an audiophile-focused tuning (rather than DJ) that's based on blending the voicings of its M-80 on-ears and the LP2 over-ears. It wouldn't be unfair to say the company is aiming for a flat, yet fun sound -- all in a package that's fit to take to the streets like its earlier offerings. Those familiar may know that just under 150 of the first 200 production-quality models are currently floating around as early stock and test units for a final bit of real-world feedback before mass-production begins -- and this editor's been lucky enough to get his mitts on a set for some initial impressions. So, is the product shaping up to match all the hype? Click on past the break for our take.
Although the M-100 headphones are similar to V-Moda's other products -- namely, mil-spec (810G) metal construction and vampire-esque styling -- this is the brand's first set to feature collapsible earcups and cable inputs on either side. Its cliqhinges (as they're named) swing the 'cups in-and-out of place with a click and a firm hold, sadly however, they can't fold flat; still, we're glad to see more focus on portability and enjoy that these headphones will fit in a hand. We're not exactly sold on the red accents and screen-pressed (read: cheap-looking) logo on the headband, but white, matte black and replaceable earcup plates will also be available. Speaking of how the headphones fit (but on the head), it's basically what you'd expect from the LP2 cans. We're told that the earpads are slightly different, but we wouldn't know the difference if blind-folded. The cans have a pleasingly slim profile, so that also means there isn't much depth inside of the earcups from the pads to the metal grills in front of the drivers.
Even though this editor didn't experience major cartilage cramps after a few hours of repeated use, it's safe to say it'll be a weird feel for some -- memory foam pads only help so much when parts of your ears are being pressed against pieces of metal veiled only by a thin strips of fabric. We should note, however, that clamping force and weight (280 grams) don't seem to be part of the issue here, as the steelflex headband (which can be pushed flat at least 10 times) does an admirable job of keeping pressure at a minimum. Kolton stresses that, based on his research and various reviews (Amazon & Head-Fi), most people do rate the ergonomics highly, but noted that deeper, wider and velour pads are definitely on the table for post-release availability. The main issue as he puts it, is that "the fit is the sound," so any minor changes require more development time to ensure it's ready to ship at the company's standards.
As we mentioned, the biggest change with this set is the newer sound. As Kolton (mostly verifiably) explained to us:
We originally tried to replicate M-80 sound but in an over-ear as it is almost the top-ranked in the world in ... overall reviews. However, it came out a bit different than we planned and has a deeper extending, yet still "fast" bass that you can feel more. The highs extend much higher past 8kHz to 30kHz. The isolation and soundstage is better, especially with our [Vamps]. The fit difference in an on- vs. over-ear creates a world of difference. Overall, we feel M-80 and M-100 are cut from the same cashmere of sound, but the M-100 edges it out for most music -- but the M-80 has a bit flatter overall curve which makes it the maestro for mixing productions on the go.
This time we did not use the 31-band EQ that was used mainly for M-80 and to a lesser extent Crossfade LP (primarily 50+ DJs). For M-100, we primarily used audiophiles, producers, editors and golden ears to outgun our own M-80, so in a way it still used the 31-band EQ but it was based on its heritage and our R&D data. We did this because M-80 became the #5 ranked headphone now of all headphones in the world on Head-Fi and we really couldn't find another headphone we liked better in EQ/soundstage. LP is #1 on Amazon in customer ratings for "modern headphones." We usually have two competitors we aim a model to beat, but this time it was our own two and no other brands: M-80/LP2.
So, gripes about the fit and familiar design aside, we're finding ourselves very pleased with the sound quality after a few hours of initial use with an iPhone 5 (click-through for our independent audio tests of Apple's latest). Almost exactly as described, the 50mm drivers let the high-end shimmer without being fatiguing and the bass bump just enough for impact without drowning the full mix. The audio comes through exceptionally clear, well-rounded and moderately punchy. If sound could be equated to a candy bar, these would be a Kit-Kat -- a smooth, moderately thick texture with a very light crisp. It's a similar tonality to what you'd expect from something like the well-regarded Audio-Technica ATH-A700 headphones ($165), albeit much more polished and refined aside from an expectedly smaller soundstage. Speaking to that, the headphones sound very open and natural for being fairly portable. They definitely possess the "big" V-Moda sound to them that, which feels similar to being a small club.
We especially like that although the sound is bright, the treble isn't very harsh or exaggerated (something we're the company especially mindful about) not in least and vocals come through naturally full -- Pronunciations like shh, tss and sss didn't pounce on our eardrums like what we've annoyingly experienced -- especially -- with the $350 Sennheiser Amperior, among others. We haven't had much opportunity to test out the level of isolation provided, but it seems to be light, which has us concerned about how well the headphones will do in the likes of NYC's noisy subway system (these are intended for on-the-go use, after all). Lastly, the Kevlar-wrapped doesn't seem to transfer a lot of cable noise, but we'll wait to reserve judgement once coat-wearing season is in full swing.
To put it simply, we like the direction of the audio from the M-100 headphones, if we're still not totally sold on V-Moda's designs. The cans really seem to possess the audio chops you'd anticipate from audiophile headphones without the bulky audiophile looks. As is, the headphones will ship with a hard-shell case, a 1/4-inch adapter, two kevlar-wrapped cables (one with a secondary output and another with a single-button remote / mic) and plugs for the cable inputs. Additional offerings will include more pads (as detailed above), a three-button remote cable for iDevices, a coiled DJ cable that can lock into the earcups and, interestingly, a "pro" boom-mic for the likes of gaming and Voip chat. As far as we know for now, the headphones will be priced somewhere below $400 and, depending on the final tally, this set is at least worth a listen and may even be worth your hard-earned paper if they fit your wants. We'll need much more time with the M-100 headphones in day-to-day usage scenarios to eventually make our final call -- stay tuned.