Phiaton MS-400 Portable Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Jul 8, 2014.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Youtube review: http://youtu.be/iqucpt2Dp4Q

    Photos:
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Panasonic_Zs40/Headphone_Phiaton_Ms400_01.jpg
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Panasonic_Zs40/Headphone_Phiaton_Ms400_02.jpg
    http://dalethorn.com/Photos/Audioforge/Phiaton_Ms400.jpg

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

    Review note: My first impressions of the sound of the MS400 are based on direct comparisons to other headphones - the v-moda M80 and M100, the Beyerdynamic DT1350, T51p, and T90, the FAD Pandora IV and VI, and notes I've accumulated from many prior reviews. I describe how I relate to the MS400 (i.e. my personal tastes and how I use the headphone) only after covering all of the objective issues.

    My first impression of the MS400 was a muffled sound, and it hasn't gotten better. The chart included here and on my dalethorn site tells the story - it's down about 12 db at 5 khz (mid-treble), but the bass response is very good. This is my third Phiaton MS400 - the prior two were the black and red/black versions. All three sound similar, but the black version had much less clamping force than the red/black version, and as a result the bass wasn't as strong. I've created 39 EQ curves for various headphones by now, and the MS400 is my latest setting. I've found that the simple settings I make not only reduce colorations and the negative effects of resonances, but nearly always make a big improvement in the soundstage, especially for the smaller closed-back headphones. Since the muffled sound disqualifies the MS400 as a high fidelity headphone in my experience (and I only do hi-fi reviews), the success I had with the EQ settings means that THE REMAINDER OF THIS REVIEW is for the EQ'd sound only.

    The EQ settings I created to balance and smooth the response were tricky and a bit extreme, but the result is a fairly smooth and warm sound. The problem with extreme EQ (and this one isn't an exception) is that you're usually left with an uneven response between each of the EQ center frequencies, and that unevenness can make the sound rough, grainy - anything but smooth and clear. Continuing (with the specified EQ), the bass is very good, with satisfying detail and tonality. Besides the music tracks listed below, I use the track "Rock You Gently" by Jennifer Warnes as a good test for bass impact and detail, and the MS400 passes that test with no issues. The midrange has no issues either - colorations are very small or nonexistent. The treble is where the extreme EQ was applied, and while the result is good and smooth, it isn't as extended as certain other headphones in its price range - the Shure SRH840, ATH ESW9a, and v-moda XS to name a few examples. Still, I find it good for average hi-fi listening.

    Summing up, the MS400's EQ'd sound quality is smooth and clear and essentially free of distortions and resonances, based on listening with my best amps and high-resolution music tracks:

    The soundstage is spacious and airy, and the musicality is very good.

    The comfort is excellent with the very soft earpads that don't pinch my ears, and the headband clamp is very light.

    The thin, clingy rubber cable is far from ideal.

    The portability is perfect insofar as having the ability to wear around my neck comfortably when not listening, plus the inclusion of a decent small carrycase for stowing in luggage or backpacks. Isolation is good - enough to be able to enjoy music in places that aren't extremely noisy, but not enough to get a sense of significant isolation. The small amount of leakage won't likely be a problem in quiet offices or public libraries, as long as the volume is kept to a reasonable level. The earpads are a special type of leather, and they form a good seal to the head which insures a full bass response. Like the Sennheiser Momentum (the original around-ear version), the earpads don't fully surround average-size ears, so some users may not experience a perfect fit as I have. The 4 foot long dual-entry and non-detachable cable is thin, and although there are strain-reliefs where the cable enters the earcups, it looks fragile, so I'd recommend handling the MS400 with great care.

    The comments in the music tracks listed in this review can be compared to other headphone reviews I've done, to get an idea of how the MS400 plays the different types of music listed here 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 the MS400 compares with each individual track.
     
  2. dalethorn

    dalethorn Active Member

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    Location:
    Charleston South Carolina
    Phiaton MS-400 review part 2 - music tracks.

    Animotion - Obsession (1980's New Wave/Techno): The upper bass synth has good detail and tone with a modest weight, and both male and female vocals sound natural without favoring either. The MS400 plays this very 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 fairly well by the MS400.

    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, and you can feel some of the weight they carry with the MS400.

    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 MS400 plays this music perfectly, 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 MS400.

    Cantus - Danny Boy (Traditional/Male Choral/Acapella): The MS400 plays these 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 MS400 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 MS400 renders the deliberate instrumental distortions clearly.

    Chris Isaak - Wicked Game (Pop/Rock): The MS400 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 realistic.

    David Hazeltine - Fur Elise (Jazz): A very high-quality recording from HDTracks. The MS400 reproduces the instruments smoothly with a spacious ambiance. The wire-brush-on-cymbal harmonics are very extended and detailed, albeit a little weak.

    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 MS400 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 *should* have the ultra-deep "shuddery" kind of sound and feel that indicates a good deep-bass response, but the MS400 is slightly light on deep-bass impact here. Still, this music sounds very good overall.

    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 MS400 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 very well with the MS400. 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 MS400 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 MS400 does those extremely 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 MS400 sound is good with plenty of the 16 hz fundamental, but that fundamental isn't as detailed and clear as some of the other headphones in this price range.

    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 MS400 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 very subtle with the MS400.

    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 MS400 reproduces those sound effects very well.

    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 MS400 conveys some of that experience, but the less-than-ideal deep bass diminishes the realism.

    Scarlatti-Kipnis - Sonata in E Major K381 (Classical, Harpsichord): The harpsichord here is fairly bright and highly detailed, and the MS400 renders the tones and transients very well.

    Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Jazz-Funk): The deep bass impacts here are fairly strong, and work very well with the horns and other instruments. The MS400 delivers the impacts with good weight and 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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