Headphones for DJs and Fans of DJs: These Sound Better Than Beats By Dre

Categories: Tech

Last year, we lamented the role Beats By Dre headphones have played in popularizing a sound profile that's top-heavy with low end. One reader left a comment that we'd ignored a specific headphone, the AIAIAI TMA-1, that he felt is "used by DJs behind the turntables and on BART." This got us thinking about a great contradiction, the audiophile basshead, and the growing numbers of headphones tuned to satisfy more discerning DJs, electronic producers, and club music lovers.

DJs have always had headphones; they've had good headphones, even. Many brands -- including Pioneer, Denon, Sony, Audio-Technica, and Sennheiser -- have more than competent DJ-centric entries in their lineups. A lot of models, however, have concentrated primarily on portability, durability, and isolation, and were voiced to be used primarily at gigs. In most DJ headphones, a personal subwoofer-like sensation emphasizes the rhythm, while the highs are rolled off to reduce listening fatigue when competing with the house system's volume. Now, however, electronic dance music isn't relegated to clubs, so the new breed of headphones offers some physical flare without as much woefully unbalanced sonic embellishment. Here's a selection of sets that will tighten up playback whether you're enjoying the latest Fabric mix on your commute, producing a track, or immolating a crowd with bass.

Introduced in 2010, the matte black rubberized TMA-1 ($199) from Danish firm AIAIAI is aimed squarely for the Pitchfork/blog house crowd, and with a minimalist design and punchy precision it quickly established a presence. The company's branded editions, including ones with the Fool's Gold label and Beatport online music store -- as well as its blog entries about things like the DFA label documentary -- pretty well illustrated the type of fashion-conscious smartphone-toting user being targeted. For that reason, the TMA-1 is an easily driven, powerfully resonant on-ear headphone comfortable for long sessions. It offers a detailed presentation without being piercing, concentrating on warmth and sibilance-free energy (meaning you can pound your Justice and A-Trak records longer).

Oriented for round, low-slung tones, however, the TMA-1 was admittedly a little soft when it came to vocals and more extended treble. For that reason, in 2012 AIAIAI introduced the TMA-1 Studio ($249), a similarly styled around-the-ear headphone that provides a still lively but less colored staging. It pulls back a little of the sub-bass boominess and opens up a bit of the midrange, establishing coherence while offering two sets of earpads that let you pick between enhanced clarity or a smidge more rumble. With vocal house, footwork, and big synth lead-anchored anthems all the rage (think Avicii, Disclosure, DJ Rashad, Classixx), these crisp but not aggressive headphones nail a sweet spot for those more focused on production rather than performance.

Whereas AIAIAI introduced its product with DJ/producers first in mind, SOL Republic emerged with fans of said DJ/producers as its target market, quickly launching celebrity-endorsed models (including Steve Aoki, Deadmau5, Benny Benassi and LA Riots) and claiming prominent big-box shelf space. This shouldn't come as a surprise, as the company, which holds corporate offices in San Francisco, was cofounded by Kevin Lee, son of Noel Lee (founder of Monster) and an instrumental player in engineering the success of the Beats By Dre line. His strategic vision has even helped the company garner a position as one of the "Power 50" players in EDM, according to Inthemix.com. And SOL Republic carries on the colorful lifestyle branding tradition, but manages to offer its signature lightweight polymer construction at a lower price point ($99 for the entry-level Tracks model).

The SOL Republic Master Tracks
Like AIAIAI, SOL Republic offers user-replaceable parts, guaranteeing a longer return on your investment. Unlike AIAIAI, SOL Republic allows you to mix and, ahem, remix a variety of headband colorways and over-ear "sound engines" with compounding levels of resolution. Testing the Tracks Ultra ($179) reveals a set that is actually brighter than AIAIAI's offerings, with broad but not as deep bass response and more emphasis in midrange definition. Kicks have impact but don't bloom in any way that would threaten other instruments, making these more geared for critical on-the-go listening rather than two-dimensional thump. They aren't completely flat and neutral, but they play well with organic instrumentation.

More recently SOL Republic has released the Master Tracks model ($199), which uses highly isolating foam "speaker cushions" to establish a tight seal ensuring more rolling, distortion-free sub-bass. The highs are snappish but not offensively sharp, and the sheer quantity of sound covers up for some lacking texture in the midrange. These are the most DJ-minded of SOL Republic's offerings, featuring increased comfort and efficient, but not overbearing response. There's more of that slam without taking away from lush dynamics, making it a model best suited for voraciously consuming music rather than analyzing it.

The V-Moda M-100
One final manufacturer that has made tremendous headway in the EDM community is V-Moda, a Los Angeles-based audio gear designer aiming to produce the go-to for reference-class head rattlers. To do that the company "crowd-sourced" what type of sonic signature and features the market was missing, talking to DJs, producers, and members of the Head-fi.org enthusiasts community to develop its flagship Crossfade M-100 ($299). The result is an all-steel housing, dual-diaphragm 50mm drivers, all manner of accessories and a vibrant dimensionality.

A foldable, around-the-ear headphone, the M-100 is the most portable, seemingly indestructible, admittedly expensive and sonically adrenalized of the bunch recently auditioned. Inside the hexagonal memory foam earpads plays out driving bass, spacious midrange and sparkling treble, which have earned V-Moda a lot of industry ambassadors. While the company doesn't produce celebrity-branded models for retail, anyone can order customized "shields" (side plates) for the M-100, so there are sets out there sporting the logos of actual users including Darude, Erick Morillo, BT and Cedric Gervais, among others.

Whether you prefer AIAIAI's unobtrusive design or something with more visual pop from SOL Republic or V-Moda, you'll probably get stares on the train as you beat the beat -- but any of these still surpass Beats by Dre's offerings.

All headphones tested on and compatible with iPhone 5, iPad 3 and a MacBook Air powering an AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC. Prices don't reflect the lowest possible retail.

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Since compiling my thoughts on the AIAIAI, SOL Republic and V-Moda headphones, I’ve spent some time with two additional sets, so here’s an addendum. While the $299 asking price of the M-100 may seem steep, it’s important to take into consideration what you’re getting. I’m a fan of its “fun” but never unruly signature, but even more so a fan of its durability. What it lacks in DJ-minded ergonomics (specifically, a swiveling hinge for easier one-eared monitoring) it makes up for in engagement and build quality. Comparing it to another, more recently released EDM-targeted flagship, the AKG By Tiësto K267 ($349), helps put into perspective the thin line that exists between gimmick and functionality. Sonically, the 50mm K267 drivers are relatively unmasked, with just a tad of midbass boost that favors a quick, but well-mannered response over punch (though there’s a user-adjustable bass setting that will add more boominess if desired); it’s a clear, though somewhat flat sound profile. There’s nothing offensive about the sound, which is present across the bands, and they’re very comfortable. However, the isolation (tested on all headphones by sitting in a 5.1 set-up playing the Chemical Brothers Don’t Think Blu-ray) doesn’t stand up to that of the AIAIAI or V-Moda, and there’s a far too delicate feeling to the “3D-Axis Mechanism” of the earcups. Too much effort was put into the wow factor of the construction, without taking into full consideration the potentially damaging rigors of gigging. I would be perfectly content to use the K267 as a studio monitor, as its unobtrusive color lends itself to long sessions, but I’d feel nervous taking them far from the listening station, which defeats their dual-purpose DJ marketing. And, if not looking for an actually portable pair in the $300 - $400 range, the market is opened up to options including the Denon AH-D600 ($349+), which is more tipped than the K267 or M-100 but has the most pleasing subbass I’ve experienced in a can that’s not twice its price (search out the Audeze LCD-2 if you’ve got the budget). Featuring 50mm drivers in oversized, seemingly weightless leather earcups, the D600 has low-reaching but never blurry bass, as well as sparkly highs, but these are kept tightly integrated into the smooth midrange (though it is less present than in other sets). This makes for an emphatic listening experience that is more dialed in to speed and clarity than richness, which suits a lot of modern electronic/pop/metal well.

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