Bass-emphasized headphones are now the norm, so much so that when I get to listen to more accurate headphones they really stand out. Not that I have anything against bass, readers of this blog who crave feel-it-in-your-bones bass had their turn with the JBL Synchros S700 headphones, so now it's time to go for a higher-resolution/clarity model with the new Phiaton Fusion MS 430 M-Series headphones ($179).
The earcups' carbon fiber inserts are a sleek styling touch, but the ear cushion's comfort levels are good, not great. While the headband padding may be a little lean for my tastes I still found the MS 430s easy to wear for hours at a time. The cable connects to the left or right earcup, and the cable has a mic and volume control. The headphones fold up for compact storage, and the hinges seem rugged enough to provide years of service. The MS 430 has 40-millimeter drivers and impedance is rated at 16 ohms. A nicely finished carrying bag is included with the headphones.
As far as sound goes, it's all about resolution. The shakers and other percussion instruments on Radiohead's "Reckoner," from "In Rainbows," were spread wide, and each one was bathed in its own reverberant field. When Thom Yorke's vocal chorus filled in the center part of the soundstage it felt like it was in its own spatial environment. The low-end bass on Nine Inch Nails' "Hesitation Marks" CD was deep and taut, with exceptionally good definition. Solo piano recordings sound very right on the MS-430; and the piano is, after all, a percussion instrument, and you're more aware of that on these headphones. Wilco's concert CD "Kicking Television" sounded very live, and Jeff Tweedy is such an expressive singer I could hear him reacting to the audience on the MS 430.
For comparison's sake it made sense to go with the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 'phones, the acknowledged champ for full-size, closed-back headphones in the MS 430s' price class. First things first, the M50 headphones definitely have a weightier tonal balance, and I don't consider the M50s particularly bassy. That said, the MS 430s' midrange sounded a little more natural, so vocals sounded better, and guitars, horns, and pianos were all beautifully played. The string tone and texture of acoustic bass were also nicely done; the M50s were no slouch, but they sounded "canned" and closed-in by comparison. The MS 430s' soundstage depth and spaciousness were superior to the M50s', but thanks to their extra bass, muscle rock music rocked harder on the M50s. The M50s were easier to listen to with heavily compressed and harsh-sounding contemporary recordings; the MS 430s' clarity advantage brought out the best in great-sounding recordings. So there's no clear winner in this contest; each headphone has different strengths and weaknesses.