It finally happened. The market is so thoroughly flooded with headphones that manufacturers have run out of names. Instead of full words, companies are now resorting to vowel removal as a solution –evidenced, in this case, by the newly-formed LSTN audio. Ok, maybe we’re having some fun here, but the list of upstart headphone companies seeking to tap the headphone money tree is getting a little out of hand. And now California-based LSTN joins the roster of those who are looking to (ahem…) make a name for themself in the industry.
While we don’t expect regal luxury from a $150 headphone, there’s this budget-y feel to the Troubadour that put us off at first inspection…
Our first experience with LSTN comes with its flagship model, the Troubadour (available at $150). Lacing reclaimed wooden ear cups with thin clips of metal, the small over-ear model certainly strikes a distinct style. And aside from its use of reclaimed materials, LSTN also claims to donate some of its proceeds to help the hearing impaired – it’s the sort of company mission statement that gets you feeling all warm and fuzzy at thought of supporting it. But whenever we see wood brought into headphones, we’re left to wonder whether it was used for aesthetic purposes, sound design, or to simply garner attention – we’ve seen the first and last more often than we’d like. Of course, the only way to find out for sure is to have a listen and determine whether the Troubadour are as lyrical as their name would suggest. Here’s what we found.
Out of the box
Pulling the headphones from the box reminded us of the distinct difference between online existence and reality. In two dimensions the headphones appear stoutly constructed, but once in our hands we found they were much lighter than expected and even felt a bit fragile. The wood portion of the ear cups appeared quite thin, supplemented with thick portions of plastic. We found a second application of wood garnishing the two-pronged removable cable.
Features and design
While we don’t expect regal luxury from a $150 headphone, there’s this budget-y feel to the Troubadour that put us off at first inspection, mainly due to the feather-light weight of the earpieces. That said, the metal headband is actually quite sturdy for its razor-thin frame. The arched portion of the headband is split into twin metal strips, each lined with a tiny band of black “padding” (we use that term loosely) which is able to extend and contract easily without losing its shape. Slotted clips that look conspicuously like hose clamps connect the earpieces to the headband, moving through the band’s triangular end points to adjust for size.
The teardrop-shaped ear cups are riveted to the “hose clamp” extensions via two-pronged arms and rotate on the horizontal axis to fit to the head. As mentioned, the majority of each ear cup is composed of light plastic, painted with a strip of chrome around the exterior where the wooden pieces attach. Ear cup padding is ample, though not particularly plush.
The nylon headphone cable’s stereo jacks are stamped with tiny channel indicators, allowing the user to designate which channel will be which. With no other obvious indication of left and right, it is easy to think you’d have to pull out a Loupe to figure out which is left and right. Luckily, the small, buttonless inline microphone on the left fork of the cable allows for an easier delineation of the channels. The cable is 1.2 meters long, and terminated with a rubberized gold jack at a 45-degree angle.
Though the Troubadour’s headband padding is nearly non-existent, most of us felt its clamping force took up most of the slack, allowing for a relatively comfortable wear for an hour or two. Longer listening sessions will likely create some discomfort up top.
To be perfectly bunt, the Troubadour possess the kind of sound signature that we simply have no patience for. The center image was clouded with an overemphasized swath of low frequencies, bloating the bottom end of guitar, bass, and percussion into an overbearing mess. Vocals were pushed into the background, sometimes rendered with a nasal, almost AM radio-like tone, while instruments relegated to the left and right channels seemed to tumble down the sides of the mounded center into relative obscurity.
To be perfectly blunt, the Troubadour possess the kind of sound signature that we simply have no patience for.
There were certainly some albums that fared better than others in our testing (Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti comes to mind), but those with mid to heavy bass gave little quarter to the upper regions of the sound. The issue wasn’t so much that we couldn’t hear the other instruments – though there was certainly a lot of ornamentation that got shoved aside – but, more specifically, the sounds were rounded off and thin, with almost no spatial presence or clarity.
Even on lighter tracks like R.E.M.’s “Sweetness Follows”, the center image continued to hold the stereo landscape hostage. Though the song harbors little actual bass, it sounded almost like a 4-minute cello solo, with all focus drawn sharply inward, as short chops of ill-resonated guitar and organ tapped hesitantly at the sides.
The Troubadour did its best work on genres in which the lower realm is designed as the centerpiece of the music, such as hip-hop. Here, the double wide bass and kick drums were much more appropriate, striking a better balance than the lion’s share of the material we listened to. There wasn’t nearly as much detail in the snare snaps and lyrics as we would’ve liked, but the headphones did a decent job dredging through the catacombs of the lowest grooves.
Though we’ve heard worse abuses of the low end, the Troubadour’s paltry display of detail and balance make the headphones a pass for us. While the $150 price sits down at the low end of the over-ear headphone spectrum, those looking to squeeze as much quality sound from each dollar as possible will find a much more satisfying experience in the Nuforce HP 800, or the slightly more expensive Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro.
We have a thorough appreciation for LSTN’s intentions, but you can’t strap intentions to your head and enjoy music with them. As for the Troubadour, unless you like your bass thick and soupy, and your midrange weak and ill defined, we suggest you send this minstrel packing.
- Original design aesthetic
- Built with reclaimed materials
- Powerful bass
- Poor balance
- Lacking in detail
- Muddled lower register
- Narrow stereo image