Sony’s recent unveiling of their new Altus headphones was met with the sounds of both fanfare and skepticism. The most notable feature, an 8 Hz to 80 kHz frequency response range, makes most people wonder how Sony managed such a breakthrough, while audiophiles wondered where the catch was; it’s not every day that the range of reproducible sounds from consumer headphones triples. So regardless of all the hocus pocus of the supplied specifications, how do the Altus headphones perform?
What Makes These Headphones Special?
The Sony Altus headphones (MDR-D777LP series) are the much-hyped, high-end option marketed toward the discerning consumer. While Sony does offer higher priced (and arguably better performing) headphones, the Altus offers mass appeal with just enough innovation to stick out in a crowd.
It is obvious to us that Sony is gunning for the same niche as Bose with these cans, and having experience with both, we will be comparing the two throughout our review. After all, if the retail shelf is going to have only two $100+ headphone options, we might as well throw them into the cage and see which comes out alive! (Still, it should be noted that we were not very impressed with the Bose Triport headphones. We have reviewed plenty of cheaper, but hard-to-find options that could run circles around the Triports at half the price.)
The main claim to fame of the Altus headphones is the 8 Hz to 80 kHz frequency response range. Most headphones — and by most, we mean every headphone on the planet — are listed as being able to reproduce frequencies between 20 Hz and 24 kHz; the lower frequency corresponds to deep sounds (bass), and the higher frequency produces the high-pitched sounds (treble). The lower the low frequency, the deeper the tone of bass it can pump out, and vice versa for the high frequency rating. So, pumping out more frequencies means better-sounding music, right? Not necessarily. The human ear can only hear frequencies between around 15 Hz to 25 kHz (and far fewer as you age, around 30 Hz-17 kHz).
So then, this incredible frequency response hype is nothing more than a gimmick? Not exactly. You’ve probably heard that audiophiles will tweak their systems to reproduce the clearest possible sounds at the widest possible range, even those outside what are audible. This is because the sounds that you cannot hear acoustically distort the sounds you do hear by interfering in those audible sound waves. The real world outside of your iPod and CDs can produce any frequency, so the idea is that the more frequencies you can reproduce, the more natural the sound being produced is.
Ah, so this extended frequency spectrum does mean better sound? Again, not really. The reason lies in the source material used. CDs are recorded at 44.1 kHz, the maximum frequency that can be reproduced from a CD, meaning there are 44,100 points to the sound waveform, with each point’s value being 16 bits long. These discrete measurements are why analog radio buffs still swear by analog recordings like vinyl records. Recently, high definition audio formats have been introduced, most notably DVD-Audio and SACD, that offer bit rates of 96 kHz and have been aimed at converting those with high-end analog stereo equipment to the digital age.
So, we are left with a couple of questions: “Do the Sony Altus headphones improve sound quality for common audio formats, like MP3s? Do these headphones accurately distinguish between regular definition and high definition recordings?” But first, the basics…
Design and Features
In the Sony Altus’ molded plastic package, you’ll find the headphones, a carrying pouch, and a few random booklets. The soft rubber cord is attached to the left earpiece, and the headband can be adjusted to fit any sized noggin. On each earpiece is a switch that allows the headphone to operate as an “open” headphone (allowing background sound in) or “closed” headphone (isolating the sound). The adjustable headphone strap has very nice, wear-resistant padding, as do the ear pieces. The outer shell of the earpieces is either brushed aluminum coated with sealant or a plastic painted to look like brushed aluminum. The design is collapsible and easily adjustable. The headphones look professional and sleek, and the whole setup feels very well-made and sturdy.
The “Open/Close” switch intrigued us, but after trying every imaginable situation and music type, the best we could discern was that in the “Closed” position, bass sounded a little warmer. We could not detect outside noises any better, nor was the sound signature significantly different between the two. Upon closer inspection, we noted that all the switches did was move a small plastic blockage in front of a small hole at the bottom of each earpiece. We think that this hole might have been too small to allow in enough sound and too awkwardly placed to really allow the differences in air pressure that give open and closed headphones different sound signatures.
We noticed that out of the box, the headphones had an almost vice-like grip, but the headband is bendable, which alleviates this problem. The earpieces themselves are about the size of the Bose Triport’s, which we found to be slightly too small for our average-sized ears. This led to discomfort after moderately long use. The soft, leather-like padding of each earpiece should wrap around the outside of the top of the ear and rest on the head right behind the temple, but on 4 of the 5 people we had try on the headphones, the top of the ear was partially pinned to the head.
Image Courtesy of Sony
Testing and Use
To test the sound quality, we used a battery of DVD-A recordings played through a SoundBlaster X-Fi Elite using only stereo tracks, and compared this to CD and MP3s ripped at 320kbps and 192kbps. Our music choices included a selection of MP3s ranging from jazz to rock and techno, as well as the following:
– The Crystal Method’s Legion of Boom on DVD-A, CD, and MP3
– Mahler’s “Symphony No.10” on DVD-A and MP3
– Overtures and preludes by Wagner on DVD-A
– Bjork’s Vespertine on DVD-A, CD, and MP3
We were pleasantly surprised by the sound quality and smoothness of higher bit rate recordings. The DVD-A of Crystal Method sounds crystal clear and was a vast improvement over the MP3 transcoding and the CD tracks. Mahler was smooth and soothing, but a little distant and flat-sounding. Crescendos lacked a little punch, and violins were slightly muted, but flutes sounded very “sweet.” Mid-highs suffered some loss of presence, but highs and mids were good. No distortion was heard in the highs or lows, which is a good sign that the expanded range is doing its thing (if you can’t represent 20 kHz accurately, what are the chances inaudible frequencies are clean?). Overall, the sound stage was a little flat, but did pop into 3D at appropriate points.
MP3 playback was generally very good across all music types, with a better showing for jazz and alternative/rock. The slightly odd sound signature made techno hit-or-miss, depending on vocals and the spread of the sound spectrum emphasized. But overall, when listening to MP3s, there were no significant low points we could pick out. Also, we had no trouble driving the Altus headphones with an iPod, so no worries about bringing along a portable amplifier when you’re on the go.
When doing a direct A/B comparison with our only 10/10 scoring headphone, the Sennheiser HD580, there was really no competition. Though the Altus headphones are very good for a consumer-level headphone, the Sennheisers blew them out of the water with energy, soundstage, power, and precision that wasn’t even close to comparable. For instance, we could hear the conductor tapping and pages turning with the Sennheisers. On Sony’s Altus, this sounded like momentary static. Compared to the Bose Triport, the Altus headphones did an excellent job of highlighting the classic Bose dilemma — no highs or lows. While the Altus headphones are not the most spectacular headphones we’ve auditioned, they clearly trounced their primary competition.
We are not sound engineers, but we thought we’d try a little test to compare the Sennheiser HD580s and the Sony Altus headphones. Once past the reach of human hearing, oscillations at a lower frequency can be heard; this is due to the fact that even though no cells in the ear can respond at 40 kHz, waves at harmonics of 40kHz can be perceived as if they were, say, 20 kHz. Using Adobe Audition 2.0, we generated a sine wave from 10 Hz to 48 kHz; swept over 50 seconds (this is well within the spec’d range supported by the SoundBlaster X-Fi sound card). We measured when the oscillations stopped at a similar volume level, meaning that was the point where no further sound was physically being produced by the headphones. This reveals nothing about the actual tonal accuracy of the drivers, but it lets us know they are still doing something.
The Sony Altus headphones trounced the Sennheisers in this test by doubling the response range. Our Sennheisers topped out at around 26 kHz, while the Altus headphones traveled all the way to a full 48 kHz. On the low end, both clicked in at around 6Hz, which means something is not entirely accurate about this test (and we’re not surprised); we shouldn’t be able to hear that low. But overall, we can say that the Altus headphones do sport an impressive response range that is groundbreaking, as advertised.
In a very general sense, we found that the Sony Altus had a similar sound to the Bose Triport headphones: very strong mids, but with much better representation of highs and lows. We also noted that while the bass was accurate, it was a little too tight and abrupt, lacking any “boom” during music that called for it.
Our favorite aspect of the Altus headphones, though, was that they had very good frequency representation even at modestly low volume levels. Most headphones require the listener to crank up the volume to hear nuances of the music, but the Sony Altus headphones kept their character at even the lowest levels. This is especially good news for those concerned with hearing loss, since they will not have the urge to turn the volume up to dangerously high levels as they might with other headphones.
While the marketing behind the Sony Altus headphones draws attention to the whiz-bang features like frequency response and the convertible open/closed profile, we actually like these headphones for everything that wasn’t hyped. They sound good, and is there really anything else you can ask of a headphone? Though some might argue the sticker price is a little high, the sleek styling and strong build quality make up for it. Though we hesitate to call these “audiophile quality” headphones, if you are considering a higher-end consumer headphone like the Bose Triport, we strongly recommend putting the Sony Altus at the top of your list.
• Good high frequency response range
• Solid construction
• Can be uncomfortable with extended use