Headphones typically come sounding like a true full open or closed set. One offers unparalleled soundstage whereas the other offers intimacy. It’s not often you have it both ways and will have to make the hard decision of choosing one or the other. As one of Head-Fi’s top contributing posters, I’ve encountered countless new audiophiles coming to my doorsteps for help finding a superior sounding headphone with the soundstage and clarity benefits of an open headphone but needed a bit of isolation. There are closed-back headphones with emulated surround but the term gimmick comes to mind fairly quickly. And thus, the question remains on the table, what can be recommended at a cost-effective range with comfort, soundstage, and that cherished forward mid-range. Can you have it both ways?
Well, the prelude to that came one late evening when I got a ring from my editor. They had just finished up an audio show and it was immediate, I had to check out these headphones. Audio shows for those uninitiated have thousands of headphones scattered around; Like Charlie in a Chocolate Factory. Yet out of the enormous pile, one select set was thrown my way and from a manufacturer’s first foray into headphones as well.
Introducing the Andover PM-50 Planar Magnetic headphones ($499). Andover may not be a familiar name to those in the headphone audio space, but founded in 2012 by industry veterans starting off with their Model One Record Player they quickly came to prominence, and they now have their sights set on headphone audio.
Unboxing and Build:
The PM-50s come in a minimal retail box without much jazz on it. Directly to the point, it provides you with the information you need; random models wearing the headphones and smiling are not needed. Inside you’ll find the PM-50, two sets of ear cushions (one thick, one shorter), the headphone cable, and a quarter-inch adapter. You’ll note that the headphones themselves do not have any left or right indicators, the cables themselves are marked and provide stereo whichever direction you want.
My first impressions holding the PM-50 were that the Walnut hardwood cups were uniform and smooth. Needless to say, it was very pleasing to the eyes. What surprised me the most as I traced around the headphone was its degree of perfection. Typical first products from a company entering the sector, especially when it comes to working with wood will result in minor edge imperfections or color tonality mismatch on the cups. Like a game of Where’s Waldo but at the end of my inspection, I could find no fault with the PM-50’s exterior wood furnishings. Typically you’re supposed to find Waldo at the end, but Andover has been able to completely hide him and any faults from existence. Andover has done a magnificent job with their manufacturing and production to do curved wooden cups to this degree as their first offering, bravo.
During the time of my review, I have found Andover to be on the ball in terms of customer responses and rapid deployment of needed changes. The initial PM-50 shipped with firmer pads but upon the initial response of some users, in less than a few weeks, a second softer set was produced. These will be included with all future headphones as the default thicker pad and free sets shipped out to current owners. A company that not only listened to customer responses and discussions on the forums but reacted to them rather than doubling down on the sanctity of a product gets my vote.
One of the lesser flaunted features of the PM-50 is also its size and use case. The typical forum response to hearing that a new headphone was planar magnetic is that it’s meant to be a sit-down headphone due to its overbearing cup size and weight; I wonder if Audeze popularized this. The PM-50s run counter to this idea with a headphone footprint just slightly larger than that of an ‘on-ear’ headphone. With a DAP in hand, the PM-50s make a surprisingly apt companion around the house. Light enough to be used when doing chores yet with just enough clamp and weight to not fall off when your head is angled down. As Linus Sebastion (one of the most popular Technology Youtubers) famously demonstrated a while back, a headphone that falls off your head when you bend over isn’t exactly up to snuff. Andover passes my unscientific head-banging test with flying colors by…not flying off.
And let’s not forget the headphone cable, its not the diameter of my thumb or stiff like a metal rod, and above all, is of adequate length. It’s always amusing when you find a headphone clearly designed for consumer usage, but comes with a cable used for dedicated studio usage (long, stiff, and terminated to a quarter inch adapter). Andover thankfully isn’t playing with its target case here, the cable measures in at around ~1.7meters. Short enough to use on the go but just long enough to have enough maneuverability when at your desk. But again, you can have it both ways, the PM-50 uses universal 3.5mm terminations on both ear cups meaning aftermarket cables are plenty whether you want your cable longer or shorter. I always believe in giving consumers the option and using universal standards than proprietary connectors.
Comfort wise, I find the PM-50 to be soft and plush for the first two or three hours. I can see myself using this for a listening session or for gaming. However the headband style seems to center the clamp force around the upper temple area. The pressure, albeit light, seems to add up after half a work day of using it. Andover has replaced the firmer pads with the softer ones which make them easier to work with, but overall I can’t seem to pass hour four with the PM-50. The enclosed pads also cause sweating around my ears requiring the occasional pad lift. If you find your typical headphone use case to be for just a few hours, I have no choice recommending the immediate comfort of the PM-50.
I find the PM-50 to be well-built with impeccable integration with wood furnishings. It’s plush enough to be worn for a few hours and comes with plenty of cable upgrade options. With such ease in changing the earpads and cables, you can truly have it your way.
The Andover PM-50s sport a dark tonality with a forward mellow vocal and slight spike in the upper mid-range. While it doesn’t follow the Harman reference curve to a T, it has similar low to mid-range qualities of the popular reference curve. Where it differs for me would be in the mid-range timbre and forwardness. It’s pushed into the front more and has a slight harmonic reverb on it. The upper range extension while present is not the main star for the PM-50.
I find the headphone to cater towards a smoother sound signature allowing for a massive range of genres and compatibility and its money maker in its unique soundstage-vocal mix. Let’s go into detail.
Starting off with a cover of Scarborough Fair by Tamaru Yamada. This cover is a modern rendition of the popular song and used as an original soundtrack element packing more solemn feeling into its performance. My first reaction to listening to it was how uniquely the PM-50 was able to produce separation on the front vocals to the background instrumentation. It sounds similar to a Dolby Atmos multi-speaker setup with one set dedicated solely for vocals and the other floor-standing speakers for the background instrumentation. Imagine now that you have that center vocal speaker pushed forward close to you, with the background instrumentation speakers pushed off to the rear. The PM-50s have that sort of sound field to them.
Tamaru Yamada’s voice is sweet with a spike in the upper mid-range, sharp but without the amplitude to push it into bright territory, perfect to my tastes. From the mid vocal to the upper vocals, I find her voice to be spot on with plenty of character. The lower vocal range however seems to have a dip in them causing some obscuring of the details in that sector.
But back to that vocal effect paired with the soundstage. The song naturally is produced with the effect as if it was sung in a flowery field with a slight tang of melancholy. Excuse me as I say wow to how the PM-50 is able to produce that mental image of a large field despite having the singer so close and intimate to me, the listener.
Which brings up one of the first thoughts I had when I heard the Andover. This sounds like a perfect mix of an open and closed back headphone. It’s delivering on the wide imaging found in completely open-back headphones like the Hifiman Ananda, yet maintaining a closed-off vocal range for the listener. It’s like Tamaru is singing right in front of both my ears as her band is playing off in the background as I sit in that luscious flowery field; it only takes you to close your eyes to imagine it.
Thinking of this quality, I pondered to myself what would show off this the best. The answer came quickly in the form of the Hamilton Soundtrack. Thanks to our partners at Qobuz, access to Hi-Res 24-Bit recordings are available.
With one of my favorite songs from the track “What’d I Miss” starring Daveed Diggs who is cast as Thomas Jefferson. And incredible, I would say the PM-50 has found its calling. A Play recording expounds on the effect of the PM-50 as it requires a frontal sonic production from the main singer while the background stage singers and ambient noise have to be captured as well. With the Andovers, I find the play to be more enjoyable and musical than with much more expensive completely open-back planar magnetic headphones. Daveed Digg’s voice is well isolated and contains impressive clarity from a stage performance. The husky and deep tonal quality is earthy and comes through clear as day. The jazzy vernacular of Daveed’s lyrics were further compounded by the soundstage mixing in at the perfect ratio. And although micro detail in the mid-range isn’t the strong suit of the PM-50s, I found the pianos to still have sharp and recognizable strokes.
The sound of the PM-50s surprised me. Analytics, detail and sharpness are not its strong suit but the dual benefits of open and closed back benefits are a strong suit that have announced their arrival with every song I have put on with what I now call the “Andover Sound”. A smooth dark tonality paired with a soundstage and forward vocals.
The Andover headphones are a strong contender for a completely balanced $499 Planar Magnetic headphone. One of the most common complaints I hear from new headphone audio listeners is if “their headphones are broken” the completely neutral tonality is like flat water, lifeless and often without much in the way of musical qualities. The Andovers capture the heart of the typical listener opting for their first pair of Planar Magnetics. These headphones are perhaps not for the neutral elite wanting to hear every fault, every breath, and every frequency imperfection that may show up. It’s the complete opposite of an analytical headphone or studio monitor, but rather a balanced headphone choosing to support a wide range of musical genres with a unique soundstage-vocal mix to it.
For users that want the soundstage benefits of an open-back but that innate vocal intimacy of a closed-back with a wide range of musical support but at a bargain price, the Andover PM-50s have stepped up to the podium as a choice pick. So Yes, you can have it both ways.
Box Contents: Headphone, headphone cable, quarter inch adapter, two sets of pads.
Driver Size: 50mm
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Frequency Response: 15Hz to 50KHz
Wood type: Genuine Walnut Hardwood