A couple of days ago, we listened to the $129 Pro-Ject Hear It One, the larger of two new headphones from the budget turntable specialists. Now we’ll listen to the Hear It Two, a $79 on-ear model that, frankly, looks more like something you’d buy at Target than something you’d buy at Needle Doctor.
Like its big brother, the Hear It Two is a generic-looking design. The earpieces swivel so that the headphone can be slipped into a slim briefcase. Unlike many on-ear models, the headband doesn’t fold for easier packing.
So the design of the Hear It Two offers nothing to get excited about. To find out if there’s something exciting about the sound, I called in our usual West Coast headphone listening panelists— L.A. voice actress Lauren Dragan and jazz musician Will Huff—as well my fellow Tech^2 blogger Geoff Morrison.
Because Pro-Ject touts the Hear It Two as especially well-suited for use with portable products, we used iOS and Android smartphones as our sources most of the time. For longer, more exploratory listening sessions I used the $39 HiFiMan HM-101 USB DAC/headphone amp, plugged into my laptop computer.
Compact on-ear headphones have been what you might call an acquired taste for our West Coast testing panel. I’ve definitely acquired the taste, but the rest of us are still coming along.
For me, listening to Mumtaz Mahal, a beautifully recorded CD from Water Lily Acoustics featuring blues singer/guitarist Taj Mahal with Indian musicians, was a revelatory experience. On “Rolling On the Sea,” I heard a huge sense of ambience, loads of detail in the three stringed instruments (a guitar and two variations on the Indian veena), and Taj Mahal’s voice imaged dead center, almost as if he were right behind me. This from a system costing a grand total of $118.
Guitarist Steve Khan’s “Casa Loco” (from the CD of the same name) sounded even bigger, the Hear It Two capturing the colossalness of Khan’s heavily chorused and reverbed Telecaster and Manolo Badrena’s ambient vocals, bell tree, and unidentifiable weird percussion instruments. What surprised me most is that the Hear It Two gave me powerful, tight bass, delivering the full impact of Anthony Jackson’s powerful bass line. The one flaw: Steve Jordan’s insistent snare drum sounded a tad too bright, making the sound a bit fatiguing when I turned up the volume.
You probably think this tiny headphone performs heavy metal about as convincingly as Justin Bieber could—but you’d be wrong. Well, mostly wrong. The subterranean groove of “Slaves and Bulldozers” from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger sounded ultra-deep and adequately nasty. I can’t say it got my head bobbing, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have liked a little more bass, but the bass that was there sounded fantastic: tight, precise, powerful.
You’ll have to listen hard to note the colorations in vocals with the Hear It Two—they’re there, but they’re rarely troublesome and usually unnoticeable. Maybe Dylan’s midrange sounded just a bit overemphasized, James “Blood” Ulmer’s baritone sounded a tad thin, and Laura Nyro and Michael Stipe sounded ever-so-slightly bright. But there was zero excess sibilance, zero “cupped hands” coloration, and zero bloating of male voices.
By now, you’ve gathered that I like this little headphone a lot. But I happen to favor the form factor of on-ear headphones; I love the lightness and easy portability, and don’t generally mind the lack of bass.
So how did Will and Lauren feel? “At first I thought, ‘Oh, these are cheap, Walkman-style on-ears,’” Will said, “but the sound quality wasn’t what I expected. Even though they’re not large, it’s a big sound. The bass is well-controlled and the sound overall is nicely warm. But I hate the way on-ears feel!”
Lauren, though, heard no virtues in the Hear It Two. “I’ve never gotten this style of headphone,” she complained. “You don’t get any isolation.” Point taken. But she didn’t like the sound, either. “The mids are really heavy-handed and there’s not enough bass.”
To measure the Hear It Two’s performance, I used a G.R.A.S.43AG ear/cheek simulator, a Clio FW audio analyzer, a laptop computer running TrueRTA software with an M-Audio MobilePre USB audio interface, and a Musical Fidelity V-Can headphone amplifier. I experimented with various positions of the Hear It Two’s earpads on the ear/cheek simulator and settled on the positions that gave the most representative results. As with most on-ear models, I had to use the 43AG’s clamping mechanism to get an adequate seal on the ear/cheek simulator; this may have the effect of boosting the bass by a few dB in the measurements.
The Hear It Two’s frequency response is unusual. There’s not much bass, but there’s there’s more energy than usual in the 500 Hz to 1.5 kHz band. Most headphones have a response peak somewhere around 2 or 3 kHz; this one doesn’t. However, it does have a lot more energy than usual in the 6 to 9 kHz range.
Impedance runs between 33 and 47 ohms, averaging about 34 ohms. Adding 70 ohms output impedance to the V-Can’s 5-ohm output impedance to simulate the effects of using a typical low-quality headphone amp boosts the bass by about +2 dB below 100 Hz, which means the Hear It Two might actually have a more appealing tonal balance when used with a fairly high-impedance headphone amp, like the ones built into many smartphones and laptop computers.
Total harmonic distortion (THD) at 100 dBA is low above 300 Hz, but really high in the bass, ranging from 7% to 27% below 100 Hz. For a compact on-ear model, isolation is surprisingly OK from about 1.5 kHz to 10 kHz, but below 1 kHz there’s practically no isolation.
Average sensitivity with a 1 mW signal at 32 ohms rated impedance is 104.4 dB from 300 Hz to 10 kHz, 105.0 dB from 300 Hz to 6 kHz.
Expecting a compact on-ear like the Hear It Two to deliver powerful sound is like expecting Justin Bieber to do a great cover of a Zeppelin tune—it’s just physically impossible. But if you’re cool giving up some bass impact to get clear, ambient mids and highs in the bargain, the Hear It Two is an excellent choice, especially at its bargain price. And what other inexpensive headphone offers the cachet of an audiophile brand?
Brent Butterworth and Geoff Morrison combine their years of gear testing and knowledge in one überblog of irreverence and techiness.