Phiaton MS-400 Stereo Headphone review

Discussion in 'Headphone Reviews' started by dalethorn, Nov 20, 2012.

  1. dalethorn

    dalethorn Obsessive Auditor

    Jul 3, 2011
    Charleston South Carolina
    Youtube Video review:

    Sources: iPhone4 alone, iPhone4 with PA2V2 amp using LOD, various computers using Audioengine D1 DAC and the D1's headphone out.

    Before I get to the details, I want to summarize my view of the MS400's sound. Some years ago, Radio Shack issued catalogs in which they juxtaposed items at 3 price/performance levels as "Good, better, and best". Today after some break-in time for the MS400, I laid the MS300, MS400, and Sennheiser Momentum headphones on the table to compare the 3 different sounds. What I heard was exactly "Good, better, and best". All 3 have soft highs, relatively uncolored midranges, and decent bass. But where the MS300's midrange was emphasized higher up giving it the most nasal sound of the 3, the MS400 was much better, with more realistic-sounding vocals and instruments. Then came the Momentum, which not only beat the MS400 in realism and midrange balance, but had a clarity that made the MS400 sound artificial and very slightly harsh or grainy by comparison. The bass and warmth level also got better from MS300 to MS400 to Momentum, not merely as more quantity of bass and warmth, but by an obvious increase in quality.

    The Phiaton MS400 was released 3-1/2 years ago and is not as competitive among today's ~$250 USD headphones as it was when first released. That said, it sounds pretty good, it's an extremely comfortable around-ear headphone, and the bling factor is very good. The version with red earpads and headband is the high-fashion item, while the black version commands much less attention. Even so, the black version (which I bought) has the unique carbon fiber earcups that give it a special look. I had the red-trimmed version more than a year ago, and whereas it impressed me as having a high quality build, the preponderance of plastic on this MS400 makes it feel less so, even though close inspection shows it to be very well finished, with no suggestion of potential durability problems. I could wish for a slightly thicker cable than the ~2.1 mm thick dual-entry cable it has, but it's probably good enough, being significantly thicker than the MS300's cable and the B&W P3 and P5 cables.

    I remember my previous MS400 having earcups that didn't fully surround my ears, and having a heavy bass. This MS400 does not have the heavy bass, the earcups and earpads completely surround my not-small ears, and the clamping force is light for a full-size headphone. This light clamping force is possibly responsible for the lighter bass, and certainly for the high comfort level. In spite of the light clamp, isolation is good with this MS400 - about as good as the Sennheiser Momentum. Leakage is low - in a quiet office you could play music at medium to slightly loud levels without disturbing someone in the next cubicle, as long as the earpads are tight against your head. The earcups can be pulled all the way down and the headphone worn around your neck all day comfortably when not in use, which is an important feature of a good portable headphone. The earcups can also be folded flat, which is a nice bonus. The MS400 comes with a very small and stiff zippered carrycase that every portable headphone should have.

    The MS400's highs are softer than the v-moda M80, Sennheiser Momentum, and ATH ESW9A, all of which have soft highs compared to the better high fidelity headphones. I use iPod/iPhone treble booster or the desktop equivalent in Foobar2000 for the MS400, which makes the treble sound quite good with no sibilant problems or other irritations. The MS400's bass is down about 6-8 db at 30 hz compared to the midrange, and while some types of music may sound light in the bass with this headphone, there is noticeable bass weight and impact when the genuine tones are in the recording. I would categorize the bass as close to neutral in quantity. I would also like to suggest that if you do mainly distracted listening with headphones on such as gaming, watching movies, or cruising the Internet, the bass may seem especially light or unsatisfactory. If you listen to music exclusive of other activities, the bass qualities will be more noticeable and more likely to satisfy.

    In other reviews I've done I've included the following music examples 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 other reviews and see how the MS400 compares with each individual track.

    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 very well by the MS400.

    Beethoven Symphony 9, Solti/CSO (1972): Very good overall sound. Note the bass impacts beginning around 10:30 of the fourth movement. Those impacts won't overwhelm you since they're soft and well in the background, but you can feel some of the weight they carry.

    Blues Project - Caress Me Baby (1966): Rarely mentioned, but one of the greatest white blues recordings ever. The loud piercing guitar sound at 0:41 into the track is a good test for distortion or other problems. Handled well by the MS400.

    Boz Scaggs - Lowdown (1976): Good sound quality - this is a great test for any nasality in the midrange. Handled very well by the MS400.

    Buffalo Springfield - Kind Woman (~1968): A Richie Furay song entirely, rarely mentioned, but one of the best sounding rock ballads ever. This will sound good on most headphones, and it's very good with the MS400.

    Cat Stevens - Morning Has Broken (early 70's): A near-perfect test for overall sound - this track will separate the best sounding headphones from the lesser quality types. Nothing specific, except that almost any deviation from perfect reproduction will stand out with this track. Sounds very good with the MS400.

    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.

    Def Leppard - Bringin' On The Heartbreak (1981): MTV goth/pop/metal at its best - good ambience and high energy - the better headphones will separate the details and make for a good experience. Lesser quality and the details tend to mush together. The MS400 plays this very well.

    J.S. Bach - E. Power Biggs Plays Bach in the Thomaskirche (~1970): Recorded on a tracker organ in East Germany, the tracks on this recording have the authentic baroque sound that Bach composed for, albeit the bellows are operated by motor today. The MS400 plays the tones seamlessly through the upper limits of the organ, which cover nearly the full range of human hearing. Of special note are the pedal notes - tracker organs have low-pressure pipes and don't typically produce the kind of impact around 30-35 hz that modern organs do. A headphone that's lacking in the low bass will sound especially bass-shy with this type of organ, but the MS400 provides a satisfactory experience.

    Jamming With Edward - It Hurts Me Too (1969): Intended originally as a test to fill studio down time and set recording levels etc., this was released a few years later for hardcore Rolling Stones fans. Although not as good technically in every aspect as the Chess studio recordings of 1964, and in spite of the non-serious vocals by Mick Jagger, this rates very high on my list of white blues recordings, and sounds delicious with the MS400.

    Jennifer Warnes - Rock You Gently (1992?): The strong deep bass percussion at the beginning of this track has been cited as a test for weakness or distortion in certain headphones. Having played this track many times now, I'm favorably impressed with the MS400's bass reproduction and detail throughout the track, and even the beginning notes which have a moderate impact and a distinctive drum-type sound.

    Jimmy Smith - Basin Street Blues (early 60's): This track has some loud crescendos of brass and other instruments that don't sound clean and musical on some headphones. The MS400's reproduction sounds somewhat hollow compared to my other headphones. 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 instrumental separation and detail, and the MS400's reproduction (using treble boost as noted above) suggests to me that the drivers just can't keep up with the intensity of these blasts, even though the treble reproduction is fine elsewhere.

    Ladytron - Destroy Everything You Touch (~2009): Featured in The September Issue, this song has heavy overdub and will sound a bit muddy on some headphones. Sounds good with the MS400.

    Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery - Delilah (Take 3) (1962): The vibraphone is heavily dependent on harmonics to sound right, and the MS400 plays it well.

    Pink Floyd/Dark Side of the Moon - Speak To Me (1973): Strong deep bass impacts will be heard and felt here.

    Rolling Stones - Stray Cat Blues (1968): Dirty, gritty blues that very few white artists could match. On some headphones the vocals and guitar lack the edge and fall more-or-less flat. If you're a really good person, playing this song will probably make you feel nervous and uneasy. Sounds OK with the MS400.

    Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart In San Francisco (1962): Frank Sinatra's favorite singer. Highest recommendation. With some of the best headphones, the sibilants on this recording are very strong, but not with the MS400.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2012

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