Because we’re talking about a hip-hop-centric headphone, the place to start our sonic discussion is the bass. Geoff made a strong case for the bass of the Sync by 50. “This is good deep bass reproduction,” he said. “It’s well-controlled, not sloppy. I liked it, and I liked it in the THUMPP mode, too. Some might say THUMPP is too much, though, and some might say it’s too much bass even without THUMPP.” Lauren found the bass “a little overpowering even without the boost, but not terrible.” I felt it wasn’t particularly well-defined or punchy, but it was definitely satisfying and suited a lot of modern music well. Like Lauren, I felt it was a little too much, and THUMPP pushed the bass into the realm of the absurd.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Sync by 50 definitely seemed to have a significant boost in a fairly narrow band (I guessed about an octave) of treble. “There’s too much sizzle in the snare drum,” Geoff noted, and I had to agree. A lot of percussion instruments, such as snare, cymbals, and cabasa, sounded hyped-up and edgy.
Voices, though, sounded surprisingly clear and fairly smooth. On the smoothest-voiced singers, like James Taylor and Holly Cole, there was some extra edge in the lower treble that made them sound a little unnatural and harsh, but overall we were pretty happy with the voice reproduction.
The more I listened to the Sync by 50, the more I started to “get it.” Right after jotting down “seems like boosts at 50 Hz, 2 kHz and 6 kHz,” it dawned on me: A lot of hip-hop doesn’t contain much more than that. You hear deep bass hits, some fairly high-pitched percussion, and voices, but often not much else.
So I cued up one of Fiddy’s own tunes, “Candy Shop,” and the headphones sounded fantastic, with powerful bass, Fiddy’s voice sounding clear with an unusually strong center image, and extra-vivid percussion keeping the groove going. Same was true with other hip-hop cuts I tried, including Juvenile’s “Drop That Azz,” Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” and MIA’s “Paper Planes.”
That’s not to say the Sync by 50 doesn’t work on non-hip-hop tunes. When I thought about what other kinds of music might work with these headphones, I immediately came up with “Right Off,” from Miles Davis’s A Tribute to Jack Johnson. After all, it’s kind of hip-hop-like. There’s not much in “Right Off” except drummer Billy Cobham’s shuffle groove, a fat bass line by Michael Henderson, and Miles and guitarist John McLaughlin serving as the “voices.” And true dat: “Right Off” sounded great, with fantastic groove a huge sense of ambience and a strong center image. It wasn’t particularly natural-sounding. The drums, in particular, sounded like someone had boosted the treble on a graphic EQ. But I couldn’t deny that this, perhaps the most kick-ass piece of music ever recorded by a jazz artist, sounded ultra-mega-kick-ass through the Sync by 50.
I got a similar result when I cued up some of my favorite rock test tracks: Toto’s “Rosanna” and Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart.” On the Toto tune, in particular, the sound was dynamic, colossal, and exciting.
If you want rapperphones that sound natural, the only choice we know of is the Skullcandy Roc Nation Aviator by Jay-Z, which is much closer to an audiophile-approved sound. But one could argue that the Aviator’s not really a hip-hop headphone because it lacks the flashy, DJ-inspired styling endemic to the genre. And worst of all, at $149 it doesn’t cost enough to make anyone think you’re a playah.
The frequency response of the Sync by 50 shows a couple of anomalies that correspond pretty well with our panelists’ listening impressions. There’s a lot of bass but not a crazy amount; the mids are a little low, especially from 500 Hz to 1 kHz; and there’s a major peak centered at 2.7 kHz plus a minor one at 7 kHz, either or both of which could be causing some perceived sense of brightness. Driving the headphone from 75 ohms output impedance (instead of the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance) in wired mode produced a fairly significant bump in the bass frequency response, a boost of 4 dB max centered at 70 Hz. (Stupidly, I neglected to measure the effects of the THUMPP bass boost feature, but I’ll add them next time I get the chance.)
These figures are for wired mode. I also measured frequency response of the Kleer mode vs. the wired mode. Wired mode measures a little differently from Kleer wireless mode, probably not due to the Kleer technology itself but due to the extremely different impedance. Impedance in wired mode averages 35 ohms at most frequencies, except for an increase to 89 ohms in a narrow band centered at 68 Hz. At these levels, the impedance of the headphone will interact with the output impedance of the headphone amp to produce some changes in response. I didn’t measure the input impedance of the Kleer dongle; such devices typically have input impedance of at least 10 kohms, so they don’t have any significant effect on frequency response. The differences between wired and Kleer mode seemed mild to my ear; I didn’t readily notice them and the subjective tonal balance was about the same. The biggest measured effects the wireless mode produced are a boost of +2.5 dB centered at 100 Hz and a boost of typically +4.5 dB from 5.5 to 9 kHz.
Isolation is pretty good for a non-ANC headphone; outside sound drops above 900 Hz by -10 dB at 1 kHz, and -20 to -30 dB from 2 kHz to 20 kHz. Distortion is typical for a headphone of this type. It’s modest at 80 dB; at 100 dB, it rises below 120 Hz to 14.2% at 20 Hz. Average sensitivity in wired mode from 300 Hz to 10 kHz with a 0.179 volts RMS signal is 95.5 dB.
Sync by 50 is a long ways from the most natural-sounding headphone we’ve heard, but it is a lot of fun to listen to. It delivers a vivid and exciting sonic presentation that a lot of people — especially hip-hop fans — will totally dig. It’s also a nice piece from the standpoints of ergonomics, styling, and features. Frankly, it’s not what our panelists would choose for themselves, but if you choose them for yourself? Respect.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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