A few months back, Joey, Frank, and I convened at a hotel in Rahway, NJ to bang out some of the details that would be part of the organizational architecture here at Headphone.Guru. I had been really looking forward to this meeting, not only because I was going to get to hang with good friends and hammer out the details of an exciting project – but also because I was going to get to listen to a couple of headphones that Frank was bringing with him, along with the much-heralded Chord Hugo.
Our first night there, we hung out after dinner in Frank’s room and listened to the Hugo driven digitally by an Astell&Kern AK240. Connected to the Hugo were a pair of Audeze LCD-XC, a pair of Sennheiser HD-800, and a pair of Oppo PM-1. Indeed, the Chord Hugo had enough power to effortlessly drive all three ‘phones simultaneously and with more than adequate sound pressure.
While the PM-1 was certainly in exalted company, it wasn’t necessarily outclassed. My interest was piqued from a purely selfish POV, as I had been eyeing the PM-1 as a potential addition to my collection. Frank suggested that I buy a set, but with my budget being not as overflowing as my desires, I expressed the need to backburner that $1,099.00 idea for the time being.
Then Frank mentioned that Oppo was going to be releasing a lower priced headphone, using the same drivers, but on a less expensive armature and with less expensive earpads. Target price: $699.00
That got my wheels spinning: A sub-$1k planar-magnetic headphone using the same drivers as its much more expensive brother.
Oppo has since sent me a pair of the PM-2 for review and Frank has sent along his PM-1’s for comparison.
Throughout the evaluation period I kept trying to decipher the performance differences between the PM-1 and the PM-2. I was unable to. Beyond squinting my ears and imagining slight differences, I had to be honest with myself and admit that when using the same earpads – they sounded identical to my ears. And they should, really, given that Oppo has made it a point to demonstrate in their promotional and information copy that both headphones use the same drivers, and that the differences (earpads aside) are largely cosmetic. Take this excerpt from Oppo’s website:
The OPPO PM-1 and OPPO PM-2 share the same primary physical components (including the driver, aluminum frame, removable earpad and cable design, and rotating earcups) but there are a number of changes with regard to the materials used in the construction of the two headphones, as well as with the accessories that each pair of headphones comes with.
Oppo makes clear that the most audible differences between these two models is to be noticed when using the original earpad design with the PM-1 and the alternative earpad design with the PM-2. When examining the differences, it becomes obvious: The original earpad has a 45mm O.D. felt filter with a 25mm hole in the center, and this sits in front of the driver. While size of the opening in the felt ring corresponds to the size of the mandarin-patterned acoustic outlet of the driver, it nevertheless seems to smooth the output of the driver and, to my ears, narrow the top end of the band (just a touch). This may be due to the felt’s ability to damp reflections that bounce off the ear itself, back at the driver. Oppo’s Jason Liao also advised that the perforation patterns in the earpads themselves differ slightly from the PM-1 to the PM-2, and this adjusts the acoustic load presented by the earpad and allows Oppo to fine-tune performance.
When I used the PM-2 earpad on both headphones, they seemed sonically indistinguishable from each other.
Oppo’s chart below provides a comparison between the two models:
Earpad & Headband Material
Finish on Headband Adjustment & Swivel Mechanism
Chrome Trim Around Grill
Silver Trim Between Earpad & Earcup Body
6.35 mm Cable Construction
OCC (Ohno Continuous Casting)
OFC (Oxygen-Free Copper)
3.5 mm Portable Cable (OFC)
Selvedge Denim Carrying Case
Luxury Wooden Storage Box
Alternative Lambskin Leather Earpads
I use headphones in three circumstances, generally speaking: for portable listening, for listening on my desktop audio rig, and for listening to the output of my Sound Devices 702 recorder when I’m doing high-resolution needle-drops from my vinyl rig.
I love listening to vinyl over headphones. There’s something extra that the process of vinyl playback lends to the music, and whatever that something is – it’s even more apparent through headphones. By recording my vinyl to PCM 24/192 I’m trying to catch as much of that magic as possible – but, admittedly, something remains lost in the translation between the pure analog signal and the digital recording. I monitor the analog side of the feed just so I can bliss-out and get those doses of juicy music unalloyed by whatever the conversion process is taking away. It’s not that the resulting playback is terrible – it’s actually kind of spectacular. But there’s enough of a difference for me to want to indulge in that extra little spice that the pure analog signal brings to the party.
My desktop system is filled to the brim with music from just about every CD I own, and a number of high resolution downloads that I’ve loaded up on recently despite my philosophical aversion to these sorts of expensive swindles. Still, the music is fantastic (listening to Jimmy Cobb Quartet on Chesky right now, what a gorgeous album).
My portable “rig” is just my iPhone, and I’m either playing files or streaming. I’m kind of surprised how good some of the streaming sounds, given the obvious limitations and compression issues involved. They’re a far cry from high resolution, but the best of them seem to be able to hold their own with their commercial-issue CD counterparts when I’m just listening to jam out uncritically.
With that routine in mind, I’ve unseated the LCD-3 and LCD-XC, and I’ve plugged in the PM-2.
I was taken by surprise how well these phones rock, actually. I didn’t think that the combination of dynamic snap, LF impact, and pure powerful gronk would come together so well – but the PM-2 delivers the head-banging goods. Artic Monkeys, Social Distortion, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Mars Volta, Pantera, and the like were rendered with supreme slam and jamosity. Seems to me that Oppo’s team has paid special attention to delivering very deep, tight, powerful, controlled bass. Not the fluffy stuff you get from mass-market MC transducers, but the kind that makes you feel that you are there – right in the middle of it. This carries the kind of deadly impact that these tracks can deliver in the right circumstance, and it makes you want to turn it up loud and just drown in the overwhelming badassness of it all.
Stepping it down a few notches, this kind of controlled impact in the LF makes listening to more bass-centric tracks even more satisfying. I hadn’t listened to Sublime in ages, but dusting off those tracks was a blast. Better than I remember. Same is true for some of the chill/downbeat lounge stuff I’ve got in the hopper. King Kooba (Blue Mosque), Opera To Relax (From Life 2 Life), Motorcitysoul (The Dream) … the deep, controlled bass massages your ears and soothes the soul.
And while I’ve read complaints/critiques about the high frequency performance of the PM-1, I’m sure that it must have had something to do with the felt disc they used in the original earpads, because I wasn’t missing any upper mids, treble, or upper end harmonics as far as I could tell. No, these aren’t resolving delicate high-frequency nuances and harmonic splendor in the same way that electrostats do … but neither does anything else that I’ve heard recently, except for other electrostats. That’s kind of a domain issue, as far as I’m concerned – and the Electrostatic Domain of headgear has the award for that particular attribute all tied up. But bringing things back down to earth, I never felt that the PM-2 sounded veiled or wanting for HF resolution, generally speaking.
A case in point is the Jimmy Cobb Quartet album I’m listening to right now. Cymbals, especially, radiate with spectral rays of harmonic rightness, as does the glowing beauty of Roy Hargrove’s horn. Another example: “Jacaras” from Begona Olavide’s record, “Salterio” (MA recordings) has all manner of plucked strings, along with a tambourine – HF detail and harmonics in the extreme – all delivered with the kind of balance I expect from more expensive headphones.
The juicy midrange and lower treble were a treat, as well. One of my favorite go-to records when I’m just looking to luxuriate in super-sexy female vocal is Shirley Horn’s amazing record, You Won’t Forget Me. Take her version of “It Had To be You” – usually covered with a jaunty tempo, but in this case it’s a seriously seductive slow, slow ballad replete with breathy saxophone, brushed snare and cymbals, and her inimitable soft touch on the piano and her rich, sweet voice. It’s easy to get lost in a track like this when the sound is right – and the sound is right. As that sax kicks in for its mellow solo, it flows into my ears like fine wine or that beautiful puff of breath from a lover’s lips just before you kiss. A very fine and intimate listening experience, indeed.
My (nearly) “all-in-one” go-to track, “La Roca” from Sera Una Noche’s second album, La Segunda (MA Recordings), puts all the pieces together in one track. It opens with lusciously swooning bandoneón, bowed cello, bass clarinet, and a softly-malleted bass drum. As the bass drum holds rhythm in the background, we get a series of solos: harmonica, then cello. This is one of the most harmonically rich, spectrally diverse, spatially abundant, and texturally complicated tracks I’ve ever heard, and the PM-2 was able to unravel it all really well – and better than just about any moving coil set, save for the Senny HD-800s. Textures came through unfettered, harmonic spectra shone with no sense of restriction, the low frequency depth and impact were astounding, and the mids were as luscious as homemade hot chocolate.
One thing to note is that the PM-2 doesn’t seem able to parse spatial information as well as some much more expensive headphones, and here I’m thinking about the LCD-XC or LCD-3, for instance. This seems to be where the PM-2 begins to show its limitations against the pricier competition: soundstaging width and depth, and instrument separation. By comparison, the PM-2 comes off as more focused and intense. It’s not that the PM-2 sounds strained, but rather that its tendency toward a more narrow soundstage can sometimes feel too intense on some recordings that may already be more narrowly mixed.
Both Calling Down The Sky and Temple of the Invisible by Robert Rich were not as immersively expansive or as deeply rendered as they are typically when I’m using either the LCD-3 or the XC, but the PM-2 was still really satisfying to listen through, and did a fantastic job regardless. Everything’s just a little closer together within the soundstage, but there’s no obvious sense of restraint from the PM-2.
“Nonstop Disco Powerpack” (Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee) seems to have very little going on in the difference signal, and the PM-2 concentrates the raw energy smack dab in the middle of the third-eye. By contrast, the LCD-XC relaxes the reins a bit and I hear more in the difference signal and more depth, as well. Of course, that’s what an extra $1k can buy you – so we’ve got to keep these things in a certain context, as well.
The PM-2 has its own advantage over the XC: it’s lighter, and therefore easier to wear for hours of listening and even for traveling with. The LCD-XC sits heavy on the fontanelle and – after awhile – that gets to hurting a little. I don’t notice the same long-term discomfort with the PM-2. I’ve spent whole workdays listening in “portable mode” in my shop, hardly noticing their physical presence on my head until my jam is interrupted – someone trying to talk to me, for instance.
Looking at the PM-2 as a whole, I’d say that this headphone is something of a compelling accomplishment in the planar-magnetic department, punching well above its weight given it’s price. What it does well, it does really well – even when being driven directly by smart-devices such as an iPhone. It’s sins are few, and may not matter to some or most listeners. They are light enough to wear for hours, designed beautifully enough to wear on a public commute, and the icing on the cake is that these headphones are designed and built to what appears to be a very high standard. Both the PM-1 and PM-2 seem modular enough to indicate that any potential driver upgrade would be very easy to replace by the end user – a huge plus for model longevity, and this is not something many (or any?) headphone manufacturers seem to be taking into account. The structure of this design is eminently modular.
Bravo to the team at Oppo, as they’ve made a solid design worthy of anyone’s shortlist. I struggle to think about how else I might want to spend the $699 that Oppo asks for this little jewel, although there are players-a-plenty right around that price point.
If you’re shopping in the under $1k range, give the Oppo PM-2 some serious consideration and do what you can to audition these beauties – they are among the nicest, best-built, under-$1k open-backed phones I’ve yet heard.