These ‘phones are spectacularly accurate, which means that awful recordings sound, well… awful. They’re awesome for monitoring, but not for everyone, writes Ashley Kramer.
AFTER A LONG run of fashion orientated headphones being reviewed on Witchdoctor, it’s refreshing to get hold of a set of monitoring ‘phones. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, fashion ‘phones are primarily designed to look good and to make a statement. They’re also often tuned to a particular sonic character – one where accuracy isn’t the first priority.
Headphones designed for monitoring need to be relentlessly accurate to allow for faithful reproduction of whatever’s being listening to in the recording/mixing process – certain DJ ‘phones are actually fashion ‘phones in disguise, so let’s forget about those. Monitoring ‘phones are also designed to be durable and comfortable with looks a distant priority.
The HPH-MT220 model is the top of Yamaha’s range of Studio Series headphones and they’re billed as providing “the most accurate listening experience available. No bass boost or noise cancelling.” To this end, they boast 45mm drivers with a CCAW (copper clad aluminium wire) voice coil, which is said to offer a combination of good conductivity and minimal weight for maximum clarity. The drivers are placed in aluminium enclosures that swivel through 180 degrees, allowing them to be turned around as required for single ear monitoring. A 3m heavy-duty fixed cable is fitted, which has a coiled section that shortens it until the extra length is needed. The jack is a 3.5mm unit with a supplied screw-in 6.35mm adapter, and as befits the nature of the ‘phones, it’s a rugged, solid metal number with a spring support protecting the cable.
Build quality is good, and although there’s a lot of plastic in the construction, the ‘phones feel sturdy enough. They’re lightweight, there’s heaps of adjustment in the band and the earcups twist and flex through a wide range of motion. Some careful tweaking can even adjust the slope of the earcups on the head, which benefits the overall comfort. The earcups are big enough to clear even my large ears but the foam is a bit too soft and shallow, which means it compresses and the driver covers can make contact with the ears. Bizarrely, there’s a circular raised section about 15mm in diameter smack bang in the middle of the driver covers, which further increases the chances of ear contact. I found this contact to be a major problem for long-term wear but headphone fit is a very personal thing, so try on a set if at all possible and you’ll be able to tell if these ‘phones are suited for the many hours of use that monitoring will require.
The all-important sound quality is as advertised – they’re damn accurate. Directly compared to Yamaha’s own Pro 500 model (reviewed here) or Skullcandy’s Navigator (reviewed here), the HPH-MT220’s initially sound somewhat flat and anaemic, especially down low, but this is an illusion because the other ‘phones are noticeably boosted through the mid bass. The two fashion ‘phones carry more weight and impact, making for a fun and energetic character, especially with hard rock or electronica, but spend enough time with the HPH-MT220’s on your head and you’ll quickly become aware of just how closely they’re adhering to what’s on the recording, and how faithfully they’re passing on the characteristics of what’s in front of them in the signal path. What starts off as a sense of missing bass is rapidly replaced by an appreciation of the sheer quality of the bottom end, which is exceedingly tight without being overblown. Detail levels from the very bottom through to the upper bass are excellent.
The midrange and treble are not what could be called smooth, and they’re certainly not warm; there’s far too much resolution and transparency on hand for that. These ‘phones don’t gloss over anything, and they’ll leave you in absolutely no doubt as to what you’re hearing, which is a great quality with good recordings, but can make some recordings difficult to take and others utterly unbearable. Certain favourite songs were just too harsh to be truly enjoyable, or to even listen to for that matter, but that is what these HPH-MT220’s are designed to do – to be accurate, and in this respect, the Yamaha engineers got the tuning dead right. The HPH-MT220’s are totally unfazed by high-volume levels, proving impossible to drive into compression without destroying the user’s hearing.
Yamaha’s HPH-MT220 headphones weren’t much good for lugging around the city streets – the size and long fixed cable made sure of that – but they were quite addictive at home, providing a degree of insight into my CD and MP3 collection that had me playing certain tracks on repeat but skipping over others with alacrity. They remind me of certain good-quality, professional active desktop monitor speakers I’ve reviewed in the past – big, beefy, unburstable and perfect for hearing exactly what’s on a recording, without having to listen to someone else’s assessment of the music (i.e. the engineering team). For monitoring, I’d recommend them highly. For day to day ‘phones, I’d advise caution. Only the truly committed need apply – those who can handle the truth. ASHLEY KRAMER