Skullcandy’s Mix Masters were designed with the help of a Beastie Boy. Ashley Kramer approves of his input
IT’S SAID THAT reviewers shouldn’t have preconceived notions, that we should have the open minds and clear consciences of those who study the deepest philosophies or the mysteries of life and the universe.
Sorry to admit it but I’m all too human and prone to occasionally prejudging things when I should know better. Take these Skullcandy headphones for example. They were designed in conjunction with “colossal and legendary DJ Mix Master Mike from famed hip-hop group Beastie Boys” (to quote the press release) – DJ ‘phones concocted by a Beastie Boy? You’d have to forgive me for assuming that they’d be ultra big in the bottom end and brash and probably bootylicious everywhere else. Once again, assumptions have failed me because the styling is certainly out there in the typical Skullcandy fashion but the ‘phones are nothing like what I expected.
So why did I get them in for review? I didn’t really expect audiophile qualities but I thought that they might be a bit of fun. At least I got that part right because they’re absolutely heaps and heaps of fun.
The Mix Masters are a closed back over the ear design and can fold down to a surprisingly compact package, which is handy because no one genuinely likes lugging around a full sized set of ‘phones all the time. The finish and build quality are good but that shiny plastic isn’t going to keep its pristine gloss for long unless the ‘phones are well looked after and spend a lot of time in their zippered carry case. Still, some wear and tear will no doubt add to their street cred, which is something they have in spades. The edgy design with its bright silver skulls, logos and highlights mean that you couldn’t miss them in a blizzard but that said, they actually look really cool and they attracted a bit of attention among the youth of today when I wore them around town. Are they more desirable than a set of Beats ‘phones? That depends on the individual I guess; Beats have developed a certain style over substance, too cool for school, worn without a headphone cable connotation that some will abhor but the Mix Masters don’t seem to fit into that category at all.
The Mix Masters are shipped in a nice box with a padded case and two cables, which can be run into either side of the ‘phones using a 3.5mm jack on the bottom of each earcup. There’s a 1.2m standard cable fitted with an iPhone remote control and microphone plus a 0.8m coiled cable for studio and DJ duties (featuring a locking connector). The jack on both cables is a 3.5mm type but a 6.35mm adapter is packed in the box. There’s a mute button on the left earcup and for mixing and DJ purposes, the ‘phones are set up so that the entire mix is directed to a single side when an earcup is turned through ninety degrees.
Unfortunately, they’re not the most comfortable ‘phones I’ve ever tried. With their soft and stylishly stitched earpads, they should be a pleasure to wear but the earpads are slightly too soft and squishy, while the earcups are quite shallow with a plastic surface in front of the drivers. My ears got pushed against this plastic, which proved annoying but not painful; someone with smaller ears may have no hassles at all though. Another factor is the headband – these ‘phones are designed to cut out external noise and to stay on regardless of circumstances, so they do tend to fit pretty tightly, at least on my oversize melon. I’m used to this from many hours spent wearing a set of Sennheiser HD650s, so it didn’t bother me much but others may find the pressure troubling, especially if it results in your ears sitting flush against the plastic inside the earcups. The earpads can also get a little hot and sweaty in warm weather but this is pretty typical of over the ear ‘phones worn outdoors. All that said however, I wore the Mix Masters for long periods because I was enjoying the sound so much and besides feeling as if I needed to adjust them more often than I normally would, I wasn’t particularly cursing the fit. Try before you buy if at all possible – you may have no comfort related issues at all.
The sonic surprise was evident from the first few moments of the initial track I heard through the Mix Masters – ‘Daddy Fat Sax’ from Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. With my iPod’s levels up high, the 50mm mylar drivers nearly took my head off, not from outright volume but rather from pure power and slam.
These ‘phones are remarkably dynamic and hit hard, so every single percussion strike they deliver comes in with an impact that’s quite spectacular. You could argue that any set of decent over the ear ‘phones with big drivers should pack a punch but the Mix Masters are special in this regard. The bass lines rock with vigour too, and the lowest notes stay tight without being overblown or resonant even on tracks that are heavy, heavy, heavy down there. Running through the entire Big Boi album and then spinning Wyclef Jean’s Greatest Hits had me literally laughing out loud and tapping feet like crazy at the Mix Masters’ speed and power. Fun in spades as I said!
It’s not all bang and slam though, the small details in the intro to Wyclef’s great version of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ (that’s not blasphemy by the way, it really is a good cover) were very apparent, not to the degree that you hear them on the HD650s but still obvious. Milder tunes from performers like Van Morrison or Dave Matthews still sound good but the Mix Masters only really come alive with some volume flowing through them; at the lower levels suited to this type of music, they’re a good listen, detailed but a tad sedate – switch from a few softly played James Taylor tracks and crank up the noise with Smashing Pumpkins or Pearl Jam and they’re different ‘phones. You don’t need to be on “11” all the time but “2” doesn’t cut it.
So detail levels are good from the bottom through the mids and into the treble without being forensic. The top end doesn’t sound overly extended – it’s by no means rolled off but doesn’t sound like it’s ringing off into the ultrasonics like some ‘phones, notably the HD650s, which are dramatically more open and clear up top, admittedly for significantly more money and with a different intent behind them.
There’s no great sense of space to the sound either, thanks to the closed back construction but this doesn’t affect the enjoyment at all, in fact, it enhances it when listening to the kind of music these ‘phones were created to play – bang out some hard rock, rap or metal or anything with drive and energy and you’ll be instantly involved and probably grinning. The percussion and bass on tracks from Wild Beast’s Two Dancers were an absolute blast on the Mix Masters – I listened to ‘The Fun Powder Plot’ three times before I moved onto the other tracks; the drums sounded amazing.
Something I really like about the Mix Masters is that they can be driven to high levels by an iPhone or iPod, while retaining their dynamics and without sounding weak kneed or congested. Like most ‘phones, they definitely sound better hooked up to something with a little extra grunt such as NuForce’s Icon iDo headphone amp or even the headphone jack on a decent amplifier. They’ve also got the resolution to justify loading uncompressed tracks on your player but you won’t feel short-changed when you’re out and about being portable.
Skullcandy’s newest ‘phones are aimed at a very specific type of user and I suspect that the company isn’t at all worried about the audiophile market. I know diddly squat about mixing music and I’m no more likely to DJ a gig than I am to shoot off to Mars in my Toyota but I know what I like when I hear it. The snap of the sound meant that I often found myself choosing the Mix Masters over all the other ‘phones I had on hand when I was in the mood for some rock and basically saying comfort be damned. I’d definitely stick to a set of ‘phones from one of the hi-fi players if I was looking for something to dissect every detail of a recording, especially acoustic ones. As far as high-enjoyment, high-flexibility ‘phones go however, when it comes to raucous electric music, these do the business, especially given their ability to sound good on the end of a mobile device.
They’re not inexpensive at all but celebrity backed ‘phones seldom are. There are DJ ‘phones out there with lengthy histories and towering reputations for being bulletproof or unburstable, not to mention other high profile ‘phones powered by the rich and famous, so the Mix Masters have their work cut out for them but they’re serious contenders and well worth a look and listen. ASHLEY KRAMER