There’s yet another competitor in a crowded market, but as Ash Kramer explains, NAD’s ‘RoomFeel’ technology really packs a punch.
NAD IS THE latest in a long line of well-known hi-fi companies that have had to acknowledge the power and size of the headphone market. There’s just too much money out there to resist, especially in a time where the ‘soundbar’ is the biggest selling thing under the sun, and stereo separates aren’t exactly flying out retailers’ doors.
NAD has been in the audio game for over four decades, and even though the company has some upmarket products in its various ranges, it’s best known for affordable audio gear. While many punters will remember the brand for the iconic 3020 integrated amplifier, I’m a fan because of a NAD CD player that I bought second hand back in the early ‘90s. This mid-‘80s unit has delivered thousands of hours of service and is still going strong today, and sounding pretty good considering its antiquity in digital years.
The spiritual successor to the 3020 amp arrived for review but the VISO HP50 headphones were also in the box. The quality of the HP50’s packaging blew me away on first glance, so I grabbed them, totally ignoring the D3020, which was left to languish in the corner of the room while I unpacked the ‘phones.
Features & Construction
Someone at NAD has been paying attention to the right way to present products to consumers because the HP50’s look like a high-end treat from minute one. This impression continues when they’re removed from the box, which is of course a good thing. I’m not really a fan of white earphones or headphones, but it didn’t take long for me warm to the look of the review units. With the white covers, and the black, silver and chrome parts, this really is a good-looking set of cans. Call me crazy but there’s an element of art deco to the styling, particularly around the area where the headband adjustment takes place.
They’re also among the most comfortable I’ve ever worn, thanks to a big set of earcups that miss my ears completely despite the HP50’s portable orientation. There’s also a set of soft (but not too soft) foam earpads that keep the driver covers from making contact with my ears. Even the padding on the headband is just right. There’s loads of adjustment, and once the HP50’s are in place, there’s no need to mess with them even after long mobile listening sessions.
Build quality is pretty good but compared to the equivalently priced Focal Spirit One’s (review here), NAD could do better especially in terms of the overall solidity of construction. I’m not entirely convinced that the long-term durability is all it could be. The headband is covered with a butter-soft material that’s not going to like too much accidental contact with a rough surface, or even the bumps and thumps of day-to-day life. Then there’s the way the headband slots into the earcups, which seems to be potentially fragile, although my usual vigorous bending and twisting didn’t cause any hassles. Then again, in years of headphone use, I’ve never actually had any ‘phones fail on me because of a breakage, so in all likelihood, these will keep going strong for years.
The cable is usually the failure point on any ‘phones, so it’s nice to see two 1.3 long detachable cables supplied with the HP50’s, one with the usual Apple mic/remote, and a standard cable. The ‘phones are also supplied with a soft padded carry case complete with carabiner, airline adapter and a 6.35 to 3.5mm adapter. The earcups fold through 90 degrees for storage in the case but they still make for a relatively sizable package, more daypack orientated than slim laptop bag, so bear this in mind when shopping.
There was one element of the HP50’s presentation that had me worried, and that was the “ROOMFEEL” logo on the box. I assumed the company wasn’t talking about making the ‘phones physically feel like a room, so that likely meant they’d messed with the acoustics to make the ‘phones sound big and spacious.
As the NAD site puts it:
“Created to translate the warm, open sound of live performance directly into your private headphone experience. Countless hours were spent in one of North America’s most sophisticated audio labs in the research and development of RoomFeel technology, discovering a way to add back to the recording without altering the audio signal. The result is true headphone innovation that lets you sense the music around you, feel every beat, and hear a more open soundstage.”
Now I have to admit that the “add back to the recording” bit had me worried. How the heck do you add back anything without altering the audio signal? Some research led me to a more definitive definition of what Roomfeel is all about than the one from NAD’s marketing department. Basically the NAD engineers (led by Paul Barton of PSB fame – NAD is a sister company to PSB) have tweaked the response curve to get the HP50’s to mimic the way speakers sound in a room, complete with the usual low-frequency boost and some of the additional warmth that you get in a room compared to an anechoic chamber.
More from the NAD site:
“While using the most accurate measurement equipment and techniques is critical to getting a good result, it is also important to understand the difference between music listening on loudspeakers and music listening on headphones. Speakers are stereo, and play into the acoustic space of a room, whereas headphone listening is a binaural experience with one ear completely isolated from the other. Not only does this change the spatial perception of music, it also changes the frequency response. In fact, most of our spatial cues are related to changes in both frequency response and level. If something is behind you, in addition to being slightly quieter it also has a predictably different frequency response than if it were in front of you.
“Despite the fact that headphone listening has become so popular, most recordings are still recorded in stereo for playback on loudspeakers. Because of the work NAD has done in the science of acoustics over the years, Paul Barton was able to combine his knowledge of recorded music, loudspeakers and room acoustics, with the measurement techniques developed by Dr Shaw to create an entirely new approach to headphone design.
“By taking this approach, NAD developed a unique feature we call ‘RoomFeel’. RoomFeel makes music sound more natural by taking into account the effects of the room on music playback. Almost all recorded music is monitored using direct radiating loudspeakers to determine the acoustic balance for the final mix. The transfer function NAD developed for the HP50 headphone has taken into account the ‘room gain’ that occurs when playing direct radiator loudspeakers in a room. The result is a much richer and more natural listening experience.”
Despite the measured assurance of these lengthy quotes, I assumed that the HP50’s would sound much like the other bass-boosted ‘phones out there, all of which are desperately trying to emulate the success of the Beats line of ‘phones or feverishly attempting to appeal to a younger target market. There’s nothing wrong with that in context but it is a recipe for less than accurate audio. It only took 30 seconds of AWOLNation’s ‘Sail’ from Megalithic Symphony to show that whatever the NAD engineers have done, they’ve done it exceptionally well.
The quality of the HP50’s bottom end actually provoked a “holy cow” from me, when this track’s big bass kicked in. Bloated it isn’t! This is bass the way it should be, with plenty of power and weight, along with the ability to go seriously deep without that loose throbbing quality that’s become quite common.
Try ‘Wake Up’ from the same album at high volume and you’ll see (or hear) the light. This is possibly the best bass I’ve heard on ‘phones at this price – just so controlled yet missing absolutely nothing in terms of sheer extension. If anything, the quality of the HP50’s bass is something similar to the way a good set of speakers can couple to a room.
Fortunately, the HP50’s aren’t just good down low. They’re luscious through the midrange with a beautiful balance that’s revealing and highly detailed without being too explicit, yet at the same time, they’re what could be called smooth. The top end continues in much the same vein – there’s simply bags of information on hand, yet the treble never becomes too intrusive despite being not at all rolled off or reticent. Think high quality silk-dome tweeter and you’re in the ballpark for the sound of the top end on the HP50’s. The presentation is also big and spacious, with a wide soundstage that’s more like what you’d expect from a much bigger set of open backed ‘phones.
I listened to all kinds of music on the HP50’s from the soft vocals of Feist to Rage Against The Machine turned up way loud, and at no stage did I feel that I needed to hit the skip button or to reach for the volume control. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any hint of audio shenanigans; the Room Feel tuning is subtle and all you end up with is a neutral set of ‘phones that sound like they’re worth every cent of the asking price
The reservations I’ve got regarding durability have to be taken in consideration with the intended use – if hours at the gym or skatepark and a life spent hurled into a backpack are on the agenda, then something with a more rugged headband material is in order. On the other hand, if they’ll be used like most ‘phones at this price will be used, then they’ll be fine.
You can listen to these cans all day because they just don’t become tiring in terms of comfort or music playback. They’re as at home with CD quality files as they are with lower bitrate rips and downloads, going some way to flatter the really bright and compressed stuff while still being able to show off the very best recordings. They’re easy to drive, going louder than I needed on the end of a number of portable devices, and they’re entirely happy on the end of a good SACD player and my Perreaux SXH2 headphone amp, which is where they spent a fair amount of time.
As usual, there’s loads of competition out there but NAD’s VISO HP50 headphones put on an exceedingly impressive performance and are absolutely worth considering at their price point. ASHLEY KRAMER