Blue Microphones Ella Planar Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Jun 4, 2017.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Youtube review:

    Photos:
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/iPhone7p/Headphone_Blue_Mic_Ella_01.jpg
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Audioforge/Blue_Mic_Ella.jpg

    Sources: iPhone7+ with Oppo HA-2/AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC/amps, various computers using the AudioQuest DragonFly Red/Lehmann Traveller DAC/amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the Blue Mic Ella headphone ('Ella' hereafter) are based on direct comparisons to other headphones, particularly those that resemble its design (closed-back studio monitor), but also to a few premium headphones for reference. I'll describe how I relate to the 'Ella' (i.e., my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    The 'Ella' bass rolls off below 60 hz or so, which becomes noticeable in the very deep bass, however, the bass has fair impact and weight for pretty much everything I listen to. The music track comments below illustrate where a user might notice a difference between the 'Ella' and a headphone with a strong deep bass. The lower treble may sound slightly recessed to some users who are used to headphones such as the Sennheiser HD800, Beyer T1 and T90, AKG K812 and 712, and so on. There are many recent premium headphones such as the AudioQuest NightHawk and Sonus Faber Pryma which sound similar to the 'Ella' in the lower treble, although both of those headphones have a much warmer low end. The Focal Elear also has a similar treble sound, but its reproduction is complicated by the non-reflective earcup design that provides a slight anechoic chamber quality. The bottom line for the 'Ella' given the "standards" ascribed to by the biggest review sites, is an overall response within +/- 4 db, which is extremely good.

    Headphones I've had in the 'Ella's price range include the Beyer T90 and DT1770, SF Pryma, AQ NightHawk, Shure SRH1840, Grado PS500, Final Audio Pandora VI and the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog, and the 'Ella' compares favorably to all of those in ultimate quality and detail, lack of distortion etc. However, the default (not EQ'd) sound of some of those is much more energetic in the lower-mid treble. The 'Ella' uses planar drivers, and of the other headphones I've mentioned, only the Alpha Dog (based on the Fostex T50rp) is a planar. Other planars I've had include the Audeze LCD2 (Fazor ed.), and what sets the 'Ella' apart from those is its upper treble sparkle and tonality, which is best appreciated in the Chesky track Girl From Guatemala, beginning at 3:00. I think most users who hear the 'Ella' for the first time will hear a very understated mids-centric sound, and if they are in a "meet", a hi-fi show, or dealer store, it will be difficult to evaluate the extremes of the spectrum due to the background noise level.

    Isolation is about average for a closed-back headphone - OK in moderately noisy areas away from traffic and so on, but probably not satisfactory for use on public transit. Leakage is low, but if playing music loudly in a quiet office or library, a person sitting next to the headphone will probably hear some faint sounds. The earpads are soft and squishy, and covered with a good grade of what looks like pleather that should hold up well. The earcup openings are oval (2.75 x 1.4" wide at the top, tapering to 1.0" wide at the bottom) and fit my average size ears with room to spare, but users with very large ears might find the width a snug fit. The headband has some nice padding, but the 'Ella' is fairly heavy at slightly over a pound sans cable, so for comfort with a secure fit, users will need to keep their heads fairly still. The unique headband adjustment mechanism should fit nearly any head, from one inch larger and one inch smaller on each side compared to mine.

    The 'Ella' comes with two audio cables and a USB charging cable for the built-in amplifier. I found that the built-in amp does provide more volume with phones and low-powered music players, but given the 'Ella's price and its design that strongly encourages at-home or studio use, I see no real use for it. If the amp provided more clarity or better tonality in the sense of using an external amp with, say, an AudioQuest DragonFly DAC, then that would be a plus, but I didn't get that idea in my listening. The 'Ella' works perfectly with the amp switched off. The cables are covered in a nice fabric weave, and terminated with 3.5 mm miniplugs. The 10-ft cable's plug is the standard 3-connector, while the short (~4-ft) cable's plug is the 4-connector type for smartphones. The plugs going into the left earcup are 2.5 mm 4-connector types, even for the long cable with the 3-connector terminator. The short cable has a control box with microphone, stop/start button, and volume buttons.

    A heavy cloth bag is included, but it won't protect the 'Ella' in luggage or in shipping. Of course, a user can also pull the earcups down and wear it around their neck for awhile if that's more convenient than packing it up. Note that while I haven't exactly raved about the 'Ella's sound, I did pay full price for it and I'm not disappointed. Overall, I like it about as well as the Focal Elear, and better than the Beyers, AQ NightHawk, SF Pryma, Alpha Dog, and the AKGs. The NightHawk is most comparable to the 'Ella's sound I think, but the NightHawk's bass is much stronger. In previous reviews I've included the following music samples with comments about how the headphones sound with each track. My suggestion is instead of reading each one as an absolute unto itself, you could compare my notes here to those other reviews and see how the 'Ella' compares with each individual track.
     
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has amazing detail and tone, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The 'Ella' plays this extremely well.

    Bauhaus - Bela Lugosi's Dead (~1980): Strong midrange sound effects - this is a good worst-case test for resonant-type sounds in the most sensitive midrange area. Handled perfectly by the 'Ella'.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Excellent overall sound. Of special note here are the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts are soft and well in the background, but you can feel a little of the weight they carry with the 'Ella'.

    Black Sabbath - Iron Man (Classic Rock): Very good instrumental detail and the vocal sounds very natural. As with most classic rock tracks, there is very little or no deep bass. The 'Ella' plays this music very smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Great sound quality - this is a good test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled perfectly by the 'Ella'.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The 'Ella' plays the voices with enough low end warmth to sound very natural, yet there is no added emphasis of the lower register of the male voices on this track.

    Cath Carroll - Moves Like You (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's percussion and voice are crisp and well-balanced, and there's a good sense of space or soundstage around the voices and instruments. The 'Ella' reproduces the space and detail very well.

    Catherine Wheel - Black Metallic (~1991): Goth with industrial overtones - I like this since it's a great music composition and the sound effects are smoothly integrated into the mix. This may sound distorted or mushy with some headphones, but the 'Ella' renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The 'Ella' plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are very detailed but not edgy - very musical in fact.

    Chromatics - I'm On Fire (Synth-Pop, female lead): This track has a good amount of space around the voice and instruments, making for a very pleasant stereo image. The voice is excellent, and the tambourine sound is clearly identifiable.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The 'Ella' reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed.

    Grieg (Beecham-Royal Philharmonic) - Peer Gynt-Solveig's Lullaby (Classical): This very old (late 1950's) stereo recording must have been made on the most expensive gear in the world, since the overall sound quality and especially Ilse Hollweg's amazing voice are as close to "being there" as I've heard with some of the better classical recordings made since the year 2000. The 'Ella' plays this music perfectly.

    Hans Zimmer - Dark Knight-Aggressive Expansion (Soundtrack): The percussion in this track hits really hard, and the bass tones beginning around 0:45 have just a taste of the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound that indicates a minimally effective deep-bass response. Overall, the 'Ella' plays this music very well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has excellent detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The 'Ella' plays this track perfectly.

    Hugo Audiophile - 15-16 (Electronic): I'm not sure what the 15-16 stands for - perhaps track numbers from a CD album. The deep-bass tones that start around 33-34 seconds into the track reproduce lightly with the 'Ella'. This is a great recording for evaluating whether a headphone's bass will be sufficient for most environments, since for many headphones that have a weaker bass, the deep bass gets absorbed and mostly lost when the environment contains a lot of low-frequency energy.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has several loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical with some headphones. The 'Ella' provides excellent reproduction. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for best-case detail. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the 'Ella' does those very well.

    Kellogg Auditorium, Battle Creek Michigan, Aeolian-Skinner Organ (1933) - Pedal, 32', Resultant, Arpeggio: This 16 hz organ pedal tone differs from other music tones in that you won't "hear" the tone - you'll only feel it. Although most music tones have harmonics (including this one), the harmonics from this tone will be too weak to provide any "feel", so whatever you actually hear would not be part of the fundamental 16 hz tone. There are ~30 hz sounds in the outdoor environment in big cities, generated by large trucks, buses, and subway trains, and they have a quality of "rumble" that's similar to some deep-bass tones found in music. This 16 hz organ tone is easily distinguished from those sounds when compared on a headphone that has good undistorted response at 16 hz. The 'Ella' plays this with modest weight and good detail, such that you can hear/feel some of the 16 cycle per second "beats" of the fundamental tone.

    Mantovani - Sunrise Sunset (Easy Listening, ca. 1972): A master musician and conductor** who specialized in light classics and orchestral pop music, Mantovani's accomplishments were overshadowed by music critics who couldn't tolerate the notion of "light classics" or "semi-classical" music, even when those recordings were no threat to the classical music genres. In any case the later Mantovani recordings from the mid-1960's through mid-1970's had the advantage of being mixed for much better hi-fi systems than those which the music critics possessed at the start of the Long Playing (LP) record cycle. Here in 2015, at least some of those digital remasters have improved the sound further, although it's not always the case. This track as played on the 'Ella' is a perfect example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    **Mantovani developed the "Cascading Strings" sonic effect circa 1950, a famous "Wall of Sound" effect for mono hi-fi systems that predated Phil Spector's own famous Wall of Sound effect by 10 years or so.

    Michael Tilson Thomas - Rhapsody In Blue (20th Century Classic): Great sound and soundstage, and terrific piano playing and tone. There are some very deep bass impacts starting around 38 seconds into the 17:24 length track, and the weight of those impacts is fairly subtle with the 'Ella'.

    Pinback - Non Photo Blue (Pop-Rock): Crispy sound with "crunchy guitars and bashing drums" - the 'Ella' renders this music as perfectly as I've heard an energetic pop-rock recording played with any headphone.

    Porcupine Tree - Trains (Pop-Rock): This track opens with some nicely-detailed string sounds and a forward-sounding male voice with a higher-than-average register. There are a series of "clip-clop" effects starting at 3:19 that should sound like they were made with wooden blocks of some kind. The 'Ella's reproduction of the 'clop' sound is nearly ideal.

    Richard Strauss (Mester-Pasadena) - Also Sprach Zarathustra (opening) (Classical): The granddaddy of bass is in the opening 1:50 of this recording, and I've heard it only once on a large and expensive loudspeaker system in Cleveland. For most people, that experience would be indistinguishable from being in a fairly strong earthquake. The 'Ella' conveys some of the drama here but the 32.7 hz organ pedal tone is a bit light. The tympani also have good impact here.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the 'Ella' renders the tones and transients extremely well.

    Tiger Okoshi - Bootsman's Little House (Jazz): The trumpet here is recorded fairly close up and is somewhat bright with a significant "bite". The 'Ella's reproduction is excellent, and the close-miked piano is also a treat. For comparison, I have several Maynard Ferguson tracks that feature a similarly strong trumpet with lots of brassy bite.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are strong and work extremely well with the horns and other instruments. The 'Ella' delivers the impacts with decent weight and detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.
     
  3. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    I always follow up on my reviews, but I rarely comment on others, unless I find something I can't validate. I read this on one major review of the Ella:

    "With dense arrangements, particularly those with potentially chaotic bass like Kamasi Washington’s Change Of The Guard, the Blue Ellas don’t always seem as composed and calm as they should given their price."

    So I bought the album, most of which had fairly weak background bass accompaniment - especially Change of the Guard, and sure enough, the bass as played by the Ella was fairly weak and indistinct. However, these were not ultra deep bass parts (where Ella is shy by a few db), and after evaluating this track with a few more headphones, I find that Ella is playing this music at least as well as my other premium headphones, and in some cases better due to the planar's quicker response.
     
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2017
  4. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

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    Another followup on another major review that stated:

    "With or without the on-board amp engaged, the Ella struggled a bit to build out the (Audeze) EL-8’s spacing and instrumental depth on 24 bit/192kHz tracks like Steely Dan’s Josie. Though they still sounded fantastic, the Ella couldn’t quite recreate moments like the EL-8’s effortless powdery glow in the crash cymbals there."

    While I don't have a 192 khz copy of Josie (nor could I find one), my SHM-CD from Japan is a very good copy and sufficient for comparison. The El-8 is undoubtedly a great headphone with an earcup design that produces a superb soundstage, but the Ella's "spacing and instrumental depth" is not lacking at all. As for the "powdery glow" in the cymbals, given the Ella's high frequency extension and the rich upper harmonics produced by the cymbals, the EL-8's upper treble must be tuned brighter than Ella's, which may or may not work with a wide range of music.
     
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