Can headphones intended for the consumer market really be useful for musicians and studios?
By Phil O'Keefe
Headphones have become a hot item lately. Today, consumers rely on them more than ever, especially with the proliferation of personal listening devices such as smartphones and tablets. In fact, some headphones have become a hot fashion accessory; a commodity that is often appreciated for the brand name more than for the sound quality. Obviously fashion is a much less important consideration to musicians and studios, who rely on headphones for a variety of tasks, from personal listening and enjoyment to practicing, composing, tracking and recording, as well as for critical listening and mixing.
Onkyo is no stranger to the world of high-end consumer audio. Their components and systems are considered to be some of the best available by savvy hi-fi enthusiasts, but they're far less commonly found in recording studios, and despite their considerable experience with audio products, the ES-HF300(s) is their first headphone. While they were designed for mobile use, the question is - can these headphones meet the varied needs of musicians and studio users?
What You Need To Know
- The Onkyo ES-HF300(s) headphones are supra-aural, closed-back headphone originally designed for the consumer market (especially mobile users), and not normally marketed to musicians specifically.
- The ear cups of the ES-HF300 can be rotated so that the headphones lay "flat" for storage. Onkyo thoughtfully includes a nice vinyl drawstring bag to store the headphones in when you're not using them.
- The Y-type cable can be removed from the headphones if needed. This allows for easy replacement in the event that it is ever damaged. The cable connects to both ear cups, with the socket and plug for the right side being color-coded with red indicators. Unfortunately, this is completely invisible once you have connected the cable to the headphones, but the design makes it fairly obvious which side is which, and you'll quickly become accustomed to putting them on "correctly." There are also L/R indicators on the inside of the headband.
- The cable itself is 6N oxygen-free copper, and is clad in a tangle-resistant elastomer sheath. Total cable length is just under four feet, which is nearly perfect for portable use, but might be a bit short for studio-related tasks such as tracking without resorting to using an extension cable. The contacts are all gold-plated, including the MMCX connectors that attach to the ear cups, and the 1/8" TRS output plug.
- Mechanical cable noise is really not an issue with the supplied cable.
- The Onkyo ES-HF300's feature a right-angle 1/8" TRS plug. This worked perfectly with my MacBook Pro computer, but due to the thickness and design of the OtterBox Defender series cases I use for my iPhone and iPad, I had to use an 1/8" TRS extension cable with a straight plug when using the Onkyo headphones with them. This will be a non-issue for many users, but if you use a thick case, you may need an extender or adapter.
- The quality of the materials and overall construction of these headphones is excellent. The driver housings and the rotating arms they are attached to are made out of aluminum, which makes them lightweight while also inspiring confidence in their long-term durability. There's some plastic here and there, but overall, the design looks and feels very sturdy.
- The drivers have dual chambers behind them that are intended to optimize the bass response. The bass on these headphones is very clear, and note definition is excellent, even in the lowest octaves.
- The metal headband can be easily adjusted to fit various sized heads, and the headband itself is well padded. Speaking of padding, the ear pads are thick and cushy, and covered in soft leatherette.
- The Onkyo ES-HF300's feature 40mm wide-range titanium drivers. Frequency response is rated from 10Hz-27kHz. Nominal impedance is 32 Ohms.
- These headphones can get quite loud. Maximum power handling is listed at 1,000mW. At 97dB/mW, sensitivity is also good enough that you can drive these headphones with just about any headphone output you may run into, assuming you have a suitable adapter for those occasions when you need to plug into a 1/4" TRS headphone jack - no adapter is included with the Onkyo ES-HF300 headphones.
- Weight is very reasonable, and much lighter than many circumaural ("around the ears") headphones, coming in at 8.5oz, not including the cable.
- Headphone "bleed" is very minor, especially for a supra-aural design, and only really becomes an issue when you crank them up to the max - at reasonably "normal" playback levels, it's not a serious concern at all.
- The fit is a little "clampy" at first, which no doubt helps insure a good seal and minimizes leakage, but it can get a bit uncomfortable with long listening sessions. It does ease up a bit over time, and setting the headphones around the arm of a sofa when you're not wearing them can help them widen out and adjust a bit faster. Another upside of the snug fit is that they tend to stay in place on your head rather well, even if you move around a bit.
- As with nearly all headphones, the Onkyo ES-HF300's need a day or two of break-in time before they settle into their optimal performance. After giving them a day of non-stop music on my iPad, the top end mellowed out appreciably, and became far more honest and smooth sounding. In fact, I'd have to say that after the break-in period, the top end became very nice on these headphones.
- Let's face it - musicians aren't always against the idea of fashion, and if you'd like to make a statement that involves something other than the basic black of the review unit (which look very classy in my opinion), the ES-HF300 is also available in white and in purple.
- While not as hyped as many consumer-market headphones are, the sound is slightly heavy in the low-midrange and upper-bass region. This is likely an intentional aspect of the design that will appeal to those who want the sound to "bump" a bit, but is less appealing from a absolute sonic accuracy standpoint. I found I was still able to mix on them, but it did require some acclimation time and mental adjustment in order to compensate.
- Although the Onkyo ES-HF300(s) headphones are relatively comfortable - especially for a supra-aural design, they do sit directly on the outer ear, and users who are sensitive to this may find them as uncomfortable as any other supra-aural headphones, especially when they're worn for extended periods of time.
I've really enjoyed my time with these headphones. While they are pushed just a bit in the low-mids and upper-bass region, they're still very nice sounding cans that are far flatter than the vast majority of consumer-oriented headphones that sell for anywhere close to their price, and their construction quality is as good or better than anything out there. The highs and mids are smooth and not at all harsh sounding, and they're very detailed - they're great cans to use for detail-oriented listening such as when you're trying to find and eliminate sonic gremlins from your mixes.
They're light enough to use on-the-go, and are a great monitoring tool for use when composing with your phone or tablet. If you need to record with your mobile rig, they provide adequate isolation for use when tracking, and bleed is low enough that you probably won't disturb others while you're working or practicing. The added bass boost is sufficient to give your recreational listening a nice enjoyable bump, but it's not so excessive that compensating for it when you're trying to do more critical mixing work is not an unrealistic proposition. Even in the lower octaves, the sound remains very detailed, and not at all muddy or indistinct.
While there may be other headphones on the market that perform better at specific tasks such as isolation, or that have a flatter overall frequency response, the ES-HF300 headphones are still a very good choice for day to day listening. Their light weight and rugged yet compact design also makes them a great choice for on-the-go use while still being suitable for occasional studio oriented use too. If you're looking for a musical sounding pair of headphones at a reasonable price that put performance over fashion and that can serve you well for both mobile use and occasional studio tasks, they're certainly worth checking out.
MSRP $179.00, available direct from Onkyo.
Onkyo's ES-HF300 web page
Onkyo ES-HF300 product sheet (PDF)
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.