Around these parts, we've generally had favorable opinions of Klipsch's audio products. Whether it's been something as small as its S4 line of smartphone oriented in-ears or grand speaker systems like its AirPlay-enabled G-17 Air, we've usually ended up awarding the brand our highest praise. If you'll recall, it was little over a year ago that Klipsch introduced its $150 Image One on-ear headphones -- the company's first set ever that weren't of the intra-aural variety, and a favorite of our own James Trew.
Fast forward to the present, and the company's unleashed its second proper over-the-head headphone, the Klipsch Mode M40 with active noise-cancellation. In recent years, headphones have exploded in popularity -- many companies have been furiously trying to blend good sound with fashion-forward looks. It's safe to say that's Klipsch's end game here, and is asking that you part ways with 350 bones to get in on the action.
Put simply, these aren't a follow-up to the Image Ones, but rather, a luxury pair that takes cues from the company's reference series headphones. Of course, as we've come to expect from Klipsch, the M40s do have some notable tricks up their yokes aside from their debatably fashionable looks -- the company promises they'll cancel noise for a massively long 45 hours on a single AAA battery, and both earcups feature an interesting dual-driver array with a 15mm tweeter and a 40mm woofer. So, have the M40s made us smitten with Klipsch all over again? Or not? Maybe something a bit more complicated? Click on past the break to find out!
Upon unboxing the M40s, we came across the usual assortment of audio-related accessories. Digging our way through, we were welcomed by the headphones themselves, a duo of cloth-wrapped cables (including one with an inline three-way remote / mic for iDevices) and adapters for 1/4-inch jacks and airliners. We're happy to note that Klipsch also adds in a few extras beyond the normal call (and it should, for that price). For one, you'll get two options for storing the headphones, with a choice between a posh hard-shell leather case or a cinch pack if you're tight on space. Additionally, you'll notice a duo of included AAA batteries (for those keeping count, that's one more than you'll normally find with most headphones).
Moving on to the M40s themselves, we'd be remiss not to point out that they look strikingly similar to headphones in the vein of the Beats by Dre studio and Soul by Ludacris lines. Factor in the similar $350 price point and some key design choices like the overall shape, hinged collapsible earcups and even the noise-cancellation toggle switch on the right earcup, and you've got some sincere flattery going on. Not to say that it's a deal-breaker, but we're definitely knocking off some points for originality here. That aside, we're enamored by the refined look of the copper and caramel hues used on the outside of cans, and the soft-touch coasting the inner areas -- the translucent bits are made from the same type of nylon you'll find on designer sunglasses. While you won't find other colors, Klipsch aficionados will surely find the color at home with the company's other high-end ear gear.
Noting what may be problematic for some, the headphones are massive, weighing in at a beefy .78 pounds (~354 grams). To make matters worse, the M40s are ridiculously wide -- we managed to lightly scuff the see-thru nylon more than once while opening doors (of course, we'll detail how this affects the fit a bit later in this review). Our last qualm with the design are all the divets and seams between sections. Within a few days these areas lined themselves with an unpleasant amount of lint and dust, similar to our experience with the late Nox Audio's Scout.
On the underside of the left earcup you'll find a 3.5mm input for either of the included cables. Despite numerous tugs and cable pull-outs, the jack remained tightly in place and the plastic around it didn't show signs of cracking. Both cables proved incredibly durable as well and we found little in the way of cable noise, although they were slightly prone to bunching up. If we have one complaint about the cabling, it's that the ends have straight-angle plugs, and not the kind of resilient right-angles we typically prefer for in-pocket PMP use.
Owners of iDevices will be pleased to know that the inline remote used here is now one of our favorites. The rubber buttons are easy to command while on the move, with a pleasing throw to each push and reassuring clicks that confirmed our every press. According to callers on the other end of the line, the omni-directional microphone on the back delivered crisp, clear sound, even when we were standing next to busy intersections with traffic rumbling by. For the most part, we were told it sounded nearly as good as the mic on our iPhone 3GS, if a little bit lower in volume. Unfortunately, though, the metallic shine is merely plastic, while the backside and cable tips are emblazoned with tacky Klipsch branding.
Plastered in the middle of the left earcup, you'll notice the units spring-loaded battery door. As a nice touch, the door is almost seamlessly affixed, aside from the flick-tab you'll need to open it. In use, it remains snug against the headphones and we never had a worry that it would pop open. Further up each yolk are the folding hinges we mentioned earlier, which allow the headphones to compress for storage. The earcups click firmly in and out of place, and notably, Klipsch states that they're tested to 10,000 cycles for durability. While we had no problems with the hinges' functionality, it became apparent that the paint used on them easily chipped, making us worry how new our new headphones would look within a few weeks.
Rounding things out, on the right earcup there's a toggle switch for enabling noise cancellation (we'll detail how effective it proved in the sound section). Nestled in its center is a red indicator light, which stays lit to indicate power and changes to blinking when the battery is running low. Unfortunately, it's all but useless unless you're indoors since it's hard to view outside -- even on cloudy days. One of the boldest claims that Klipsch makes with the M40s, is that they'll last roughly 45 hours with ANC functioning -- more than double that of many competitors we've checked out in the past. For the most part, we were able to leave the headphones powered on for two to three days at a time. Similar headphones considered, we're amazed that the M40s can manage roughly double the amount of powered running time on the oft-used AAA. To put that in perspective, while reviewing Sony's MDR-NC200Ds we needed to change its battery (rated for 21 hours) about once a week. Best of all, if you do manage to run out of juice before you can pick up more, the headphones function passively (more details below).
Fit and Comfort
On paper, the M40s read as if they're a dream to wear, with leather-wrapped memory foam earpads. Sadly, however, the design of the M40s killed any chance of them being remotely comfortable for more than 20 minutes. To start, the headband doesn't use a traditional pad, but rather a slab of rubber, which Klipsch notes is to keep with the overall look of the headphones. Although the headband did blend in well, it did a miserable job of staying planted on our head and balancing the heft of the cans around our ears. We usually either felt a small amount of pressure from the band or found it sliding toward our forehead.
To further complicate matters, the earcups have a rather snug fit, despite being so girthy, and their flat driver-plates aren't set very deep. There's no padding on the interiors aside from a thin layer of cloth attached to the earpads that covers them, and it consistently pushed against our ears. As if that wasn't frustrating enough, the center section of the plastic raises by a few millimeters, making for an extra pressure point. Part of the problem lies in the M40's nylon construction, which makes the cans far from flexible. The inner cups do swivel and tilt on a small axis to help contour to heads, but we still found our ears suffering from cartilage cramps all too soon. The M40s fit us tighter than most supra-aural headphones we've used and the promisingly thick pads proved to be of little comfort for our average-sized noggin. Ours ears also tended to get fairly sweaty because of the leather, making a us wish there was an option for microfiber or cloth pads as well.
On a more positive note, the head-rails adjust enough for smaller and larger heads -- counts for something, right? Furthermore, in speaking with the company, it's let us know that it's currently reducing the headphones', "clamp force" by around twenty percent in the headband on all future models. This will hopefully lend the headphones a looser fit, and we'll be sure to update this review if we can spend time with the revision.
Sound and noise cancellation
On the noise cancellation front, Klipsch curiously doesn't detail how much ambient noise reduction is actually applied. Taking the headphones on a few bus commutes through New Jersey and New York City, we noticed slight a dip in the level of engine rumble with the feature enabled, but the difference wasn't quite as dramatic as with other headphones we've tested. In other words, you might need something more powerful if you spend a lot of time in the sky, sharing cabin space with crying babies and snoring seatmates. Notably, we didn't experience the sensation of pressure on our eardrums that tends to occur with many ANC headsets. Essentially, bass frequencies will get drowned out to a small extent, but in quiet areas you'll still notice the tsss of that noise-cancellation technology doing its thing.
As we mentioned earlier, the M40s will also function passively, so it's worth noting that isolation from earcups themselves was acceptable. In comparison with our go-to B&W P5s, the M40s proved nearly as good at blocking out background noise without any powered help, ensuring we didn't need to crank the volume too high in louder areas to compensate. Put it this way; Klipsch's smaller, closed-back Image One headphones sound like they may as well be opened-back in comparison to the M40s.
In describing the sound of the M40s, the words silky, smooth and squashed come to mind. The M40s are some of the thickest, warmest sounding cans we've ever had the pleasure of using. Unlike our experience with fit, the voicing of the headphones was incredibly comfortable and warm, saving us from listening fatigue. On the other hand, the voicing is totally colored, so if you're aiming for clinical, these are without a doubt not the sound reproducers for you. Furthermore, bass aficionados will be pleased to learn that with ANC enabled, you'll get about two clicks of extra volume, along with a slight bump to the low-end when you'd like some extra thump. Thankfully, adding in the extra kick doesn't do much to drown out the mids or the highs.
Either way, while we could discern the sonic gems laid out within our tunes, there was a noticeable lack in dynamics. Especially with cymbal and snare drum hits, it was as if a pillow was being placed between our ears and the headphone's woofers and tweeters, muting much of the resonance. Putting it in terms a musician can appreciate, it would be similar to adding a compression pedal between a music source and the headphones themselves. It's especially surprising given the dual-driver setup, which one could imagine having the opposite effect as opening up the sound. Oddly enough, the Image Ones appeared to offer a much more spacious soundstage, though we still have to give a nod to the M40s, as their audio reproduction proved less hollow.
Overall, it's a fun, creamy voicing that's not far off from that of the G-17 Air -- the key difference being that we didn't notice as drastic of a dip in balance of mid-range tones. Fans of Klipsch's S4 in-ears will find that the M40s are not so sonically dissimilar with their tight and focused sound -- something to consider given the $250 price differential. Of course, it all comes at the cost of a natural, airy tone in the treble department, but the good news is that there's nary a trace of sibilance or harshness (that ear stabbing feeling) going from dubstep, to rock, to pop to everything in between. Furthermore, the cans will be very forgiving with tracks of less than stellar quality, making these perfect for when you just want to simply relax and enjoy your playlist.
Reaching the end of our review, we're torn here. Klipsch's Mode M40s offer the perks of noise cancellation, a sleek (though unoriginal) design, ridiculously long battery life and exceptionally pleasing audio quality from the woofer and tweeter setup. On the other hand, the headphones are incredibly bulky and thus, cumbersome for extended use or travel (and that's despite the folding design). That said, it's worth repeating that Klipsch is already adjusting the tightness, which should mitigate some of our complaints about the fit.
While the $350 price feels commensurate with the total package, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out other options worthy of audiophiles --- not that that's Klipsch's target customer anyway. So would we recommend 'em? It's a tough call -- if you like the style and find the fit comfortable, the M40s are easily worth it. However, for $350,we can think of a few options we'd recommend sooner.