Philips has been making headphones for decades, but the company hasn’t been a prominent presence in the market for a long time. Now that headphones have gotten hot, the brand’s re-emerging with all-new models. Most are style-oriented things that at first glance seem better suited for the necks of Kardashians than the ears of audiophiles. But the new $299 Fidelio L1 is no mere blingphone. It’s a serious design aimed at true headphone aficionados.
It might be tempting to dismiss the L1 as an inflated-price offering from a mass-market manufacturer concerned only with making maximum money. But when you get your hands on the L1, you realize it’s a serious effort. The parts of the L1 that look metallic really are made from aluminum, not from some phony metal-look plastic. The soft, memory foam earpads are super-comfortable, although the headphone does clamp your head rather tightly. The 40mm drivers are made just for the L1.
While you can lug the L1 around with you if you so choose, it’s not really designed for portable use. Its semi-open-back design wasn’t intended for maximum isolation from outside sounds. There’s no noise cancelling. The earpieces fold flat so the L1 will slip into a briefcase, but it doesn’t come with a travel case, just a soft velour carrying sack. Its sole concession to non-audiophile applications is that one of the two included cables has an inline iPhone mic/remote.
For this evaluation, I employed my own listening skills along with those of my fellow Tech^2 blogger Geoff Morrison. Geoff drove the L1 with his iPod touch; I used my Motorola Droid Pro smartphone, my iPod touch and, in some cases, a GoVibe Martini+ battery-powered portable headphone amp. Although the L1’s cables are tipped with 3.5mm miniplugs, it’s not easy to drive from a portable device. Geoff barely got it loud enough with his iPod, although on most music my iPod gave me enough volume. However, I had to use the external GoVibe amp to get serious volume from my smartphone.
Geoff’s very, very picky about headphones, so the fact that he loved the Fidelio L1 surprised me and should reassure potential buyers. “If we did a Top 10 list of headphones, I'd nominate these,” he said. I’ve heard a lot more headphones than Geoff, but the Fidelio L1 would certainly at least make my Top 20.
The sound starts with a subjectively neutral tonal balance — bass, midrange, and treble all sound even relative to one another. There’s what seems like a slight emphasis in the upper midrange and lower treble, but it’s subtle enough that I’d consider it character rather than a flaw. Geddy Lee’s vocals on Rush’s “Limelight” sounded just a tad more trebly than usual; I heard this as a welcome enhancement rather than a sonic coloration. Geoff agreed. “Excellent detail. Doesn’t bite like so many headphones do with treble. Cymbals are precise without sizzle,” his e-mailed notes said.
The spatiality and soundstaging of the Fidelio L1 are excellent, especially for a not-really-open-back headphone. On “More Cico Rece de Me Zeni,” from Krushevo by Miroslav Tadic and Vlatko Stefanovski — one of those audiophile acoustic guitar albums recorded in a highly reverberant space — the ambience I heard was captivating, comparable to what I hear with good stereo speakers in my listening room.
Vocals of all sorts sound spectacularly good through the Fidelio L1. All the 20+ singers on my iPod touch sounded smooth, clear, and uncolored. OK, maybe Joni Mitchell sounded slightly dull, in need of a tad more lower treble, when I listened to “Car On a Hill,” but that’s the sole vocal I could find that didn’t sound great.
It’s only in the bass where we found something the average listener might not like. There’s a resonant peak in the bass that gives it an exaggerated punch and sometimes detracts from the tunefulness of melodic bass lines. On “Limelight,” it sounded almost like Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee had knocked Neal Peart over the head with a bottle of Jack Daniels and taken his place. Instead of Peart’s Buddy-Rich-meets-prog-rock restrained drum sound, there was bombast. Geddy Lee’s trebly bass sounded as if he’d double-tracked the same line with a Fender Precision through an old Ampeg B-15 amp.
One might well find the accentuated bass a pro rather than a con. Geoff did, describing it as, “A nice blend between the slightly heavy plus-bass sound I enjoy, and what I’d call ‘accurate.’” But when I played Todd Rundgren’s “Wolfman Jack” from Something/Anything, a recording I’ve been listening to for 35 years through everything from a Sears 8-track portable to a $500,000 Goldmund system, I heard this massive, pumping, almost tuba-like bass that just ain’t supposed to be there.
You might ask how the Fidelio L1 compares to the audiophile headphones in the same approximate price range that we recently tested. Unfortunately, they’ve all gone back to the manufacturer so I can’t directly compare them. But I’d say that compared to the headphones that scored well in that test — the AudioTechnica ATH-AD900, the Beyerdynamic DT-990, and the Sennheiser HD598 — the Fidelio is more dynamic and rocking than any of them, while perhaps sacrificing just a bit of the delicacy and sonic spatiality we got from those open-backed models.
I measured the Fidelio L1 using a G.R.A.S. Type 43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with slight differences in position of the ear cups to get the best seal of the headphone on the cheek plate and the most representative frequency response curves; positioning was relatively uncritical with this headphone.
The frequency response measurements reveal nothing terribly unusual: a bass peak at 50 Hz, a midrange peak at 2.7 kHz, and a small treble peak at 7.8 kHz. This is a pretty standard response curve for a good over-ear headphone, the only thing unusual is that the midrange peak is a little stronger than we usually see. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a low-quality headphone amp boosts the bass slightly, by less than +2 dB at 20 Hz.
Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA measures a little high in the bass: 5% at 100 Hz, 17% at 20 Hz. Impedance is essentially flat, averaging about 28 ohms. Isolation is better than expected given the semi-open-back design, typically -10 to -30 dB above 1 kHz. Average sensitivity from 300 Hz to 10 kHz with a 1 mW signal at the rated 26 ohms impedance is 96.8 dB, much lower than the rated 105 dB but in line with our subjective experience.
The Fidelio L1 is simply a great headphone. Now, I do say that with some caveats: It might not play loud enough off your Droid, its bass resonance might bug you, and Philips really ought to ship it with a halfway-decent carrying case. But I think the vast majority of people who hear the Fidelio L1 will really dig it.
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.
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