In cranky hi-fi circles, supra-aural headphones—“on-ear” to the rest of us—are considered bush league. In addition to being dismissed as sonically inferior to circumaural or “over-ear” headphones, they are regarded by the chest-beating hardware contingent as uncouth. Walk around the CES floor sporting on-ear headgear, and prepare to be mocked by bearded middle-aged men manning booths festooned with six-foot speakers and glowing tube amps the size of ice chests.
Performance like a fancy over-ear headphone except these things are smaller, lighter, more comfortable and wireless.
You will pay through the nose, ear, and throat for all this lambskin-padded, Bluetooth-enabled high fidelity; they cost $449. If your lossy-listening significant other asks what the price is, lie.
This prejudice is not without merit. Ever since John C. Koss introduced his radical SP-3 Stereophone in 1959, over-ear has been the default template. And with good reason: Encapsulating the ears with hermetic cups prevents ambient sound from mucking up playlists, and provides the small but vital buffer zone between driver and human tissue that sound engineers depend upon to conjure an expansive soundstage. The jumbo form-factor is also a bonus. How else to fit in all those lust-worthy components and silver soldered circuits?
Into this crucible of audiophile history, dogma, and snobbery treads the intrepid boutique company Master & Dynamic, which claims its crackerjack R&D team has come up with an on-ear model that sound so damn over-ear it’s eerie. Not only that, these new MW50 headphones ($449) are wireless. Have the guys at the M&D can lab finally solved the acoustic equivalent of Fermat’s theorem? Stand by, please. Syncing Bluetooth.
Despite the inherent audio shortfall, on-ear headphones are superior to their over-ear counterparts in the all-important portability department. When was the last time you saw a person toss an Audeze LCD-4 in their backpack? OK, besides the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. Exactly. In the parallel audio universe, on-ears fit in a coat pocket, rest lightly and comfortably on the head, and don’t promote hyperhidrosis. Add excellent sound and Bluetooth, and MW50s are, in theory, the perfect daily driver.
Master & Dynamic set the bar for wireless headphones when it released the magnificent over-ear MW60 a year ago. The assignment this time around was to shoehorn that same technology into a smaller package that would appeal to subway commuters, A-list celebs, renegade NBA stars, and Silicon Valley execs who think on their feet. This downsize job also required a significant heft reduction so the headphone would be in the same net-weight ballpark as the competition. Not the easiest thing to do when you refuse to sully your product with visible plastic parts, and the signature style revolves around steel, milled aluminum, brass, and leather.
Somehow, the elves in the M&D workshop have pulled this trick off. The MW50 is one-third lighter and one-third smaller than the MW60—svelte enough to fit in the well of Tesla S center console or the pocket of a Tom Ford biker jacket. Even more impressive, it weighs only 240 grams. The Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H8, a wireless on-ear headphone that features similar metal-leather construction, is 15 grams heavier. To put the MW50’s bantamweight in perspective, the mostly plastic on-ear Beats Solo3 Wireless tips the scales at 215 grams.
If you want a fashionable and luxe over-ear Bluetooth unit that sounds better than decent, you can buy two Bowers & Wilkins P5s on Amazon for the same price as a single Master & Dynamic MW50, and still have enough left over to buy a Grado SR80e for tethered listening.
Music filtered through beryllium sounds the way many audiophiles like it: slightly aggressive and detailed, but without a hint of shrillness.
Why do these M&D on-ears cost so much? Besides the usual factors—relentless R&D, premium leather skins, lots of hand-forged aluminum, micro economies of scale, and free helicopter rides over Manhattan for the press (I haven’t been, but I hear they’re a blast)—there are a couple beryllium drivers to consider. The audio world’s love affair with this exotic metal can be traced back to 1977, when Yamaha launched its legendary NS-1000, a revolutionary stereo speaker tricked out with beryllium domes. Audiophies go gaga over this aerospace material because, in many ways, it’s the ideal driver material. Beryllium is light, durable, extremely rigid, and has exceptional internal damping properties. Also worth noting is the efficiency at which sound travels through this stuff.
That’s important because the frequency where the first “breakup” (unwanted resonance) occurs in any metal corresponds to the speed of sound through that metal. Which, in the case of beryllium, is almost 2.5 times faster than two other high-end driver materials, aluminum and titanium. The upshot: The first breakup will occur at a much higher frequency, well outside the audible range of the human ear. Even better, when breakup does occur, beryllium’s hyper-stiffness reduces the amount (amplitude) of those nasty audio artifacts. Music filtered through beryllium sounds the way many audiophiles like it: slightly aggressive and detailed, but without a hint of shrillness. It’s also smooth and extended at the top end, similar to electrostatic speakers, which are to audiophiles what Porsche 911 is to mechanics.
There is a price to be paid for all this on-ear audiophilia. Asked how much more the 40mm “custom” beryllium drivers in the new MW50 cost compared to the standard 45mm neodymium drivers in the MW60, Master & Dynamic CPO Drew Stone Briggs says, “Twice as much, but don’t tell Jonathan.” The “Jonathan” he refers to is Jonathan Levine, founder and CEO of M&D. Mr. Levine is more amused than troubled by this budgetary extravagance: “If Drew said the cost was double, that means it was probably triple.” This is what happens when David Beckham and Paul McCartney wear your product, and there are no shareholders to placate; pricey line items become a running joke at the office. Of course, the real reason that Master & Dynamic charges $449 for these new headphones is because it can.
At first glance, the MW50 just looks like a smaller version of the MW60. Look beyond the saddle-stitched leather and brushed aluminum, though, and you’ll see several slight differences. The most obvious tweak is that small piece of metal that telescopes from each end the headband. Instead of being straight, these polished stainless steel pistons are curvilinear. They aren’t there just for ear pad adjustment. The pistons also extend the graceful arc of the leather band. As gorgeous as that line looks against a polished desktop, this isn’t about aesthetics. It’s old school form-follows-function theory. The crescent-shaped piston is a subtle ergonomic device that permits the MW50 to fit a larger spectrum of head sizes more comfortably.
As far as comfort goes, new hedonistic territory has been charted here.
Unlike the MW60, this new model doesn’t have foldable hinges either. This decision was as much about preserving structural integrity as minimalism. Relax efficiency experts; the ear cups rotate and lay flat for easy packing. There are also two tiny pinholes hidden on the underside of the left cup (instead of one), which indicates the placement of noise-cancelling mics for hands-free phone calls. M&D’s signature grill pattern (non-functioning; this is a closed-back design) is tighter and more refined looking.
Oddly, the biggest design innovation is hidden. Detach the ear cups, and you’ll notice the back cavity contains a far more complex configuration of materials than those found on the MW60. This multi-faceted cavity—constructed of foam, plastic, and gossamer mesh—is there to coax the best possible sound out of the ear cups. Unlike some manufacturers, Master & Dynamic doesn’t EQ the audio signal to capture its house sound. Instead of digitally altering it, which colors the signal, the engineers “tune” these headphones the hard way: by carefully selecting and manipulating the materials that the sound waves encounter before they enter your ear. The pads become active components. Different types of mesh, for example, have different resistance to air flow. Different brands and densities of foam will alter the signal too. Every other design detail is lifted straight from the MW60’s core DNA: magnetized memory foam cups, USB-C port (for charging), wall-to-wall leather, and the same simple and intuitive button and LED array that would make Dieter Rams smile.
Every audiophile has their own short-list of “reference recordings,” expertly captured works that expose a stereo component’s strengths and weaknesses. This psychoacoustic exercise entails analyzing highly subjective and frequently elusive things like dynamic range, soundstage, and vocal presence. For all its faults, though, listening to reference recordings still reveals more about a piece of hardware than any spec sheet or squiggly line plotted on a graph ever will.
While going through the arduous process of dialing in the final tuning on these headphones, the M&D sound engineers cued up a variety of test tracks, including: Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead,” Tower of Power’s “Diggin’ On James Brown,” Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Tony Allen’s “Moving On,” and Jeff Buckley’s “Strange Fruit” (from Live at Sin-é). Halfway through the first cut on this playlist, it’s immediately evident that, on-ear or not, the new MW50 is something special. Every studio trick Kanye weaves into this eccentric mix—from the Lexicon 480 reverb to the left-right panning histrionics to the quarter-note voice delay—is rendered in stark detail. By the time “Strange Fruit” kicks in, you fully expect to hear things that lesser cans in this category would gloss over, like the high-res hum of Buckely’s tube amp patched through an intimate club’s PA system somewhere in the East Village.
M&D fans will be pleased to know the company’s multi-genre-friendly house sound and industry-leading Bluetooth antenna tech has survived the MW60 migration intact. The range is still outstanding: 100 feet, sans walls; I was still able to enjoy dropout-free music in my bedroom, located one floor above my streaming iPad. The lithium ion battery is rated at 16 hours. I fell 90 minutes short of that figure. To be fair, my volume levels were frequently above the mean.
As far as comfort goes, new hedonistic territory has been charted here. Even the cushy lambskin pads feels softer (new vendor) than the ones on last year’s MW60. The tight fit and sound isolation they provide are a revelation.
Here’s the money question: Is the new MW50 better than its high-performance big brother? That’s a big maybe. Those beryllium drivers give the 50 an advantage in the high-frequency department; the detail, from treble to bass, is astonishing. But the 60 holds the edge in soundstage reproduction, which makes the comparison a wash. Plug portability into the equation, though, and the MW50 wins going away. One thing is certain: The practicality of this wireless wonder, combined with its extraordinary sound quality and elegant design, will make all but the most serious audiophiles question the relevance of ungainly over-ear headphones. Good things, small packages, indeed.
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