We’ve become a bit worn out by the rampant overuse of celebrity endorsements in the headphone marketplace. To be frank, it doesn’t matter to us what 50 Cent or Justin Bieber decided to sign their name to, nor do we necessarily trust their opinion on sound quality — it’s a misconception that successful musicians must somehow, by extension, naturally have great taste in sound.
Your author happens to play trumpet, so you can probably imagine how it felt when we learned that Monster (formerly Monster Cable) was releasing a set of in-ear headphones with, of all musical legends, Miles Davis’ name attached to them. Well, as fortune would have it, the Miles Davis Tribute tuned out to be a pretty great set of earphones. Plus, all the Miles memorabilia that came along with them was a geeky bonus, even if they were a little expensive for our liking. The result: A favorable review.
But Monster wasn’t done throwing sand in our craw with celebrity partnerships. Recently, the company announced it had partnered with another of our favorite music entities, Earth Wind and Fire (EWF), to produce a new flavor of earphone called “Gratitude”; presumably inspired by the triple-platinum album of the same name.
“Head Monster” Noel Lee and EWF mainstays Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson proclaim that the Gratitude were born of a mutual appreciation for live, natural sound and voiced the headphones to reproduce live sound as closely as possible.
We have to wonder whether the line between truth and marketing isn’t being tested a bit here. Regardless, here we have the Gratitude, a new headphone from Monster with Earth Wind and Fire’s mojo all over them. Will they be any good, or will they wind up being just another overpriced, celebrity-backed piece of average-sounding audio gear wrapped up in a shiny box? Only one way to find out…
Out of the box
Part of what you get out of the $200 you’ll lay down for the Gratitude is some serious “pride in ownership” factor. Monster successfully carries over its opulent product delivery approach from the Miles Davis Tribute. The product packaging is decidedly over-the-top, and makes a big impression. From within a cardboard sleeve slides a brown felt-line case adorned with a gold emblem, the name of the headphones and Monster’s name badge.
A concealed magnet keeps a panel on the case in place until pulled open with a silk tab. The case opens like a book to reveal a layered treasure trove of goodies inside. The first layer includes the Gratitude canal-phones with a luxurious brown pouch located just below.
Raising the tray that holds the first layer exposes a packet containing product literature and a manual. Casting that aside, we stared in awe at an ear-tip buffet of Vegas-like proportions. No less than twelve pair of ear-tips varying in size, style and material were securely mounted on individual buttons, making for an impressive and tidy display. That $200 price point just got a lot more palatable. Proper ear-tip fit is absolutely crucial for getting the best possible sound out of any in-ear headphone, and an array of options as expansive as this makes that task much, much easier. It also doesn’t hurt that monster slips a little info-card into the box calling attention to that very fact.
Just below the ear-tip wardrobe we found a smaller, more easily portable pinch-open pouch.
Features and Design
In typical Monster fashion, detailed specifications for the Gratitude are not made available. Driver size, headphone weight, frequency response and impedance specs are not published. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!
Here’s what we do know about the Gratitude: The driver housing’s rose-gold finish is a lot more attractive than the artist’s rendering pictured on the Gratitude’s box would infer. The drivers in these headphones are angled forward just a bit to follow the shape of the ear canal, so that the housing remains more or less flush with the plane of the outer ear.
Monster outfits the Gratitude with its tangle-resistant flat cable, which we like a great deal. About 5.5-inches down the cable that trails from the left earphone is the Gratitude’s control-talk microphone. We measured the total cable length at about 50-inches.
Only two minor gripes so far: Markings to distinguish the right earphone from the left are hard to spot. Plan to use the microphone or driver angle as a clue because the “L” and “R” printed in a small recess on the inside of the cable’s strain relief are nearly impossible to see. Also, the controls on the microphone feel a bit stiff.
The test bench for this Monster Gratitude in-ear headphone review included a HeadRoom Micro DAC and Micro Amp, a NuForce Icon iDO DAC/Headphone amp, an iPhone 4S and Dell Laptop loaded with music files of varying types and quality — including plenty of Earth Wind and Fire, of course. Before we did any critical listening, we broke the Gratitude in for about 40 hours.
The Gratitude are packaged with medium-sized foam tips already installed on the headphones. We’re big fans of how comfortable the foam tips can feel but, from our experience, the foam tends to suck the life out of the earphone’s sound. Bass takes the biggest hit while midrange frequencies get pulled back in the mix.
We test a lot of earphones, so picking the right size and type of ear-tip is a pretty quick process for us, but those still working on their preference will want to take plenty of time trying the different options available with the Gratitude. You’ll know you’ve got it right when the ear-tips slide in just a bit, make a great seal and stay put. If they don’t feel secure, you’ve got the wrong size. If things sound funny, you either have the wrong size or material type. For us, the medium-large silicone tips do the trick every time. They seat securely without making our ear canal feel like it’s about to explode and bass response is almost always improved.
We logged almost 25 hours of critical listening time with the Gratitude. They kept us coming back for more, to be sure, but our repeated and protracted listening sessions were inspired by a want to figure out exactly what it was that make the Gratitude sound so…unique. They possess a sonic signature that is very distinct and specific, but drilling down to what was done in the voicing process to make them sound this way turned out to be a tough nut to crack. After some exhaustive comparisons with like-priced earphones, we think we have the Gratitude’s number.
People often use the term “clean” to describe a certain sound. From a reviewer’s standpoint, that term is taboo due to its over-use and sort of generic meaning. Yet, it is the response that was evoked every time we listened to the Gratitude. There is a sort of persistent, pristine clarity to the sound that isn’t quite natural, per se, but totally enjoyable.
Our guess is that there’s a bit of boost somewhere in the 1kHz-3kHz neighborhood. Whatever it is, it gives the Gratitude’s high frequencies a lot of “life” without taking any chances of sounding harsh or metallic. Transient sounds are more pronounced, there’s more air around vocals, brass instruments sound brassier and drums come across with more pop. It’s a deliberate coloration of sound, but over our listening sessions, we really warmed up to it.
Everything else about the Gratitude’s sound is very well-balanced and follows the queues of a recording, taking nothing away and adding only its signature sparkle. Bass was taut and growling or round and deeply resonant, depending on what the music called for. We also enjoyed a punch to the kick drum and bass that only appeared when it was supposed to, leaving acoustic recordings and instruments sounding pure and natural.
Midrange response was wide open. In fact, we think the high mids benefit some from the low treble boost we described earlier. Vocals were front and center in the mix with plenty of detail and texture resolved, giving the impression that you’re hearing more from the recording than you do with other headphones.
The drawback to such an approach to sound design is that heavily produced music, with its artificially hot treble, over-boosted bass and canned reverb, delay and other effects, is exposed for what it is and shoved right up in your face. It makes for a frustrating situation because the vast majority of us, we think, pick music we like based on the artists and songs, not recording engineers and producers. So, if your favorite singer or band took a more natural recording approach to one album but made the next album more, shall we say, “radio friendly,” you will hear a big difference and may find yourself avoiding certain songs because of it.
We compared the Gratitude to the similarly-priced Atomic Floyd TwistJax and B&W C5. In terms of sound quality the Gratitude were very similar to the TwistJax, with a bit more low-treble detail — but Monster’s cans are much, much more comfortable to wear long term. Compared to the very “warm” B&W C5, the Gratitude came off as much more lively with a very similar comfort factor, save the “loop” that the C5 uses.
It took us a while to relax into the Monster Gratitude in-ear headphones, but, once we did, we fell in love with them. These in-ears expose wide swathes of detail and breathe life into recordings that otherwise sound blunt and lifeless. They manage to transport you inside the recording, almost letting you taste the music as well as hear it. Bass is rock solid and plentiful, midrange open and airy and treble is extremely revealing, if not totally “accurate” in terms of balance.
Are they worth the $200? That’s up to you. For our part, we can say that we did enjoy certain aspects of the Gratitude’s sound a bit more than our top $100.00 earphone pick, and they certainly stack up nicely to like-priced competition. At the end of the day, we highly recommend you ditch any preconceived notions about celebrity endorsements and give the Earth Wind and Fire-backed Gratitude an open-minded audition.