MrSpeakers Alpha Dog Planar Stereo Headphone Review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, May 4, 2014.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube review: MrSpeakers Alpha Dog Planar Stereo Headphone Review by Dale - YouTube


    Sources: iPhone5 with PA2V2/FiiO E07k/Decware Zen Head amps using the LOD, various computers using the Microstreamer/Beyer A200p/v-moda Verza DAC/amps.

    Review notes: My first impressions of the sound of the Alpha Dog are based on direct comparisons to other headphones - the v-moda M80 and M100, the Beyerdynamic DT1350 and T51p, the FAD Pandora IV and VI, and notes I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I describe how I relate to the Alpha Dog (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    Summary of sound: Midrange-oriented, with bass that isn't as strong as a classic 'neutral' bass a la the Sennheiser HD800, and with treble that's far below the HD800's treble. From what I understand, the bass can be made stronger at the production facility prior to shipping to the user, to avoid warranty issues as described on the MrSpeakers Alpha Dog product page. As far as I know the treble cannot be likewise adjusted up, since the only options I'm aware of are adding more treble-blocking pads to the earcups. This is not a treble extension issue by the way - it's a somewhat recessed (~4 db) lower and upper treble with a peak around 5 khz. The treble does seem to fall off rapidly above 11 khz, but I don't have a feel for exactly what that rolloff curve might look like. If a user can accept the Alpha Dog sound as-is, they will discover (if they don't know already) what a good planar headphone experience sounds like.

    Bass note: Using a modest (~5 db) bass boost and playing some of my favorite Bach organ music by various organists (tracker organs only), the deepest pedal notes had noticeably better detail than I've heard with my other headphones.

    Although the Alpha Dog's $600 USD price may seem high to some users, my sense of the value is that it's much greater than $600. If Sennheiser or Beyerdynamic made a headphone exactly like the Alpha Dog, it would cost well over $1000. Neither company has a popular planar headphone, and neither has a headphone with a comparable ultra-deluxe external finish. The earcup fit isn't merely a matter of fitting around the ears, it's more like the ears have been immersed in their own individual anechoic chambers where nothing is heard but the pure unmitigated sound from the music source. I've had several headphones whose earcups create a sense of claustrophobia due to a very snug or slightly cramped fit. The Alpha Dog fit is nothing like that - it's more like the ears have gone to earcup and earpad heaven. I've read complaints here and there about headphones with shallow earcups, but the Alpha Dog earcups are pretty deep.

    The overall size and weight may bother some users at first (myself included), but I eventually found a good listening position where my head is not at an angle, where the weight isn't pulling one direction or another and making itself obvious. Isolation is average or better for a closed headphone, and leakage is low. If using in a very quiet office and playing music at audiophile volume levels, a person sitting in an adjacent cubicle may hear faint sounds coming from the headphone.

    Earcup rotation is no more than a few degrees horizontally and vertically, but that flexibility works well for me, and given that I have to bend some headbands to get certain on-ear earcups aligned with my ears, I'd say that the Alpha Dog design is a good one. The headband sliders move about an inch on either side in the direction of fitting a bigger head than mine, and about 3/4 inch on either side toward fitting a smaller head. My head is average size, so the range of heads that this headphone can fit should be a very wide range. The double-entry cable is about 6.5 feet long and 5 mm thick, and is terminated by a 6.35 mm stereo plug (other options are available). My opinion of the cable is that it's suitable for highest-quality reproduction from this headphone, although I know of users who have replaced their stock Alpha Dog cables with expensive options from premium hi-fi cable companies.

    The comments in the music tracks listed below can be compared to other headphone reviews I've done, to get an idea of how the Alpha Dog plays these tracks compared to other headphones. My suggestion is instead of reading each comment below as an absolute unto itself, you could compare these notes to other reviews as they get posted, and see how this headphone compares with each individual track. I didn't perform any such comparisons after annotating these music tracks for the Alpha Dog, but based on what I noted, I'd say this is the best musical performance I've experienced since doing this type of review. Bottom line on the sound: Despite my criticism of the bass and treble above, I think most people who buy the Alpha Dog are going to be very pleased with it, either as-is or with whatever options they might pursue to modify the signature.
    Last edited: May 4, 2014
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Alpha Dog review part 2 - music tracks

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has excellent detail and tone with a modest weight, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The Alpha Dog 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 Alpha Dog.

    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 really feel the weight they carry with the Alpha Dog.

    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 Alpha Dog plays this music smoothly, and the lack of deep bass doesn't unbalance the treble.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled extremely well by the Alpha Dog.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The Alpha Dog plays the voices with enough low end warmth and weight 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 Alpha Dog reproduces the space and detail convincingly.

    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 Alpha Dog renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The Alpha Dog plays this high treble energy recording very smoothly - the voice and instruments are detailed but not sharp or edgy.

    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 as realistic as I've heard with any other headphone since doing these detailed reviews.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The Alpha Dog 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 Alpha Dog 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 the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound and feel that indicates a good deep-bass response. Overall, the Alpha Dog plays this music extremely well.

    Heaven 17 - Let Me Go (1980's New Wave/Techno): The bass instrument (guitar?) has very good detail, and the voices and ambiance have a "you are there" quality that's uncommon in early 1980's pop music. The Alpha Dog 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 extremely well with the Alpha Dog. 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.

    Human League - Keep Feeling Fascination (1980's New Wave/Techno): This track's bass line is very detailed, but the somewhat forward voices don't have quite the "you are there" quality of the Heaven 17 track noted above.

    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 Alpha Dog provides excellent detail. Listen particularly to the second crescendo at 15 seconds in for maximum detail effect. I'd like to emphasize that these crescendos are probably the worst-case test I have for instrument separation and detail, and the Alpha Dog does those exceptionally 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 Alpha Dog plays this so clearly that you can hear/feel 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 2014, 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 Alpha Dog is an excellent example of the sheer musicality lurking in those later recordings, and is highly recommended for soundstage, instrumental tone, and musical balance.

    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 subtle but appreciable with the Alpha Dog.

    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 Alpha Dog reproduces those sounds perfectly.

    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 Alpha Dog conveys as much of that experience as is possible on a more-or-less neutral headphone. The tympani also have good impact here.

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

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are quite strong, and work very well with the horns and other instruments. The Alpha Dog delivers the impacts with light weight but good detail, and the horns have the kind of bite that gives them a wonderfully realistic sound.

    William Orbit - Optical Illusion (Billy Buttons Mix) (Electronic): This is about as close as I want to get to easy-listening music. The string tones beginning at 0:18 are fairly soft, and while the bass isn't very deep, it still adds a good underpinning to the music. The short poetic rap at 4:14, preceded by an etherial female voice, works very well with this track.

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