If Goldilocks’ Three Bears had headphones along with their porridge, chairs and beds, Baby Bear would undoubtedly own a pair of on-ear cans: not too big, not too small … just right. And yet, for whatever reason, it seems on-ear headphones don’t get as much love as their bigger and smaller counterparts. Why is that?
Perhaps it’s because the on-ear headphone went the way of the Discman a couple of decades ago (the Koss PortaPro a notable exception), and fell off the consumer radar; only now are we seeing headphone makers start to pay attention again. Thankfully, we’ve seen some really fantastic on-ear headphones recently: the KEF M500, Harman Kardon CL, Bowers & Wilkins P3, and Sennheiser Momentum top our list. With the XS on-ear, V-Moda aims to join the ranks of top-notch mid-size models, and we’re pleased to report it succeeds. The XS are a straight-up awesome pair of compact, portable, dynamic headphones with a sound signature all their own. Here’s how they stack up against our favorites.
Out of the box
The XS on-ear come in a box so small, it’s almost hard to take them seriously, but we know from prior V-Moda reviews to expect good things. Inside the box, we found a surprisingly compact, hard-rubber case that had us wondering how it was possible the headphones could fit inside. Unzipping the case provided the answer: The XS fold down just like the larger V-Moda M-100, but their smaller size makes for an exponentially tighter package.
The XS are as tough as an armored truck, they just don’t feel that way on your head.
In the case with the headphones we found a bright-orange, cloth-covered headphone cable with a three-button control switch and a separate microphone located closer to the ear and mouth.
Features and design
Normally, we break out our comfort analysis into a separate section, but with the XS, comfort is a primary feature. In fact, V-Moda has an involved diagram on its website illustrating the science behind the XS’ ergonomic design elements. We’re in no position to judge whether the final design is really “wind tunnel worthy” as V-Moda claims, but we’ll say this: The XS on-ear are easily one of the most comfortable headphones we’ve ever worn.
It’s not uncommon for us to go all day listening to headphones in shifts, but the XS are the only pair we can recall having worn for four hours or more at a time without experiencing any fatigue. These headphones get it right when it comes to pressure points, clamping force and overall weight. The Sennheiser Momentum and Harman Kardon CL get close, but the XS trumps them by a thin margin. If you’re apt to long listening sessions or wear a headphone during work to block out noise, give the XS a look.
Inside the headphones are a pair of 40mm drivers – the same size you’ll see in full-size headphones. V-Moda says it arrived at the XS sound curve by gathering feedback from thousands of listeners. Can a crowd-based average work when it comes to something as subjective as sound? If the XS are an accurate representation, then we’ll go with “yes.”
V-Moda prides itself on letting buyers customize their cans, and the XS continue that tradition. You start by selecting either a matte-black or white-and-silver combination, then get to choose custom- engraved exterior “shields” in one of a dozen colors, all for the cost of admission. Add-ons include a boom microphone for gaming use, an extra-long coiled cable, and a strap or chain for the carrying case. The headphones also have a spare port for sharing music with other listeners.
It took all of five seconds for us to recognize that the V-Moda XS were an excellent-sounding pair of headphones. We started out listening to tracks on our iPhone 4S (yes, it’s still working), and the XS made our first few selections sound more like they were being processed through a premium DAC (digital-to-analog converter) than through a smartphone’s humble hardware. The most obvious indication that we had a premium product on our ears was the XS’ resolution of transients, those quick and distinct sounds you hear at the attack of, say, a drum stick hitting a cymbal, or a guitar pick plucking at a string. Some of our favorite tracks for scrutinizing transient response come from Rodrigo and Gabriella’s album, 11:11. The guitar duo generates a tremendous amount of sound using a combination of complex string patterns coupled with percussive knocks and slaps at their guitar bodies. With the XS, we heard every pluck and twang in vivid detail.
Though 11:11 suffers from some dynamic compression, there’s still enough swing between really quiet moments and suddenly loud moments that, with the right pair of headphones, you might find yourself jumping out of your seat in surprise. The V-Moda XS, while not dynamic to the extreme, are perfectly capable of delivering those jarring swings in volume, and this makes for a really involving listening session. The V-Moda XS deliver so much nuance, they demand that you pay attention. These are not a “background headphone” by any means.
Whereas the equally excellent Sennheiser Momentum on-ear have a way of painting a sonic picture just outside of your head, the V-Moda XS have more of an “in your head” sound. It’s as if you can trace instrument placement within 360 degrees of space inside your cranium. The experience can be exhilarating with the right kind of music.
As for sound signature, the V-Moda XS tend just slightly toward brightness, thanks to a sparkling treble response. The very top of the midrange can get a little aggressive at times, sometimes “slapping” a little too hard with a high-pitched snare drum, for instance. But that brightness stops short of turning sharp. Even those recordings with a little too much sizzle for their own good remained tasty where other headphones often turn sour.
The meat of the midrange, however, is just glorious. Vocals always stood out as full, balanced and crystal clear. And when we listened to music with stringed instruments or brass, we felt as if we were hearing those instruments with a rare level of authenticity. Definitely a win in the midrange department.
It took all of five seconds for us to recognize the XS were an excellent-sounding headphone.
We found the V-Moda XS to be more sensitive than the Sennheiser Momentum on-ear or the KEF M500. They required less goosing of the volume dial, and we think that helps with getting such pristine sound out of devices with limited potential. But, plug them into a premium USB DAC like the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS, and the V-Moda XS will really show their pedigree.
The KEF M500 remain the king of the on-ear headphone hill for now – they’re just more balanced across the full spectrum, and a little less aggressive in the treble – but the M500 will demand an extra $100. Compared to the Sennheiser Momentum on-ear, the V-Moda XS are an equally matched competitor. To say one is better than the other would be flat-out wrong. We just think the two will appeal to different kind of listeners – the Momentum for those that like a little more bass and a more relaxed sound stage, the XS for those that like that in-your-head sensation and a more refined take on bass response.
The XS fare much better than the Sennheiser Momentum but not as good as the KEF M500 when it comes to passive noise isolation. The XS’ leatherette ear pads manage a good seal on the ear, taming ambient noise to a reasonable degree, but they are no match for the superior isolation you get from a well-fitted in-ear or noggin-dominating over-ear. Once the music is going, though, listeners will find they don’t hear much of what’s going on around them, and that should suffice for land commuters and office workers.
The V-Moda XS on-ear headphones deliver a potent combination of portability, comfort and superior sound. Those looking to graduate from their earbuds without having to don a bulky set of over-ear cans will likely find the XS the perfect solution. We even found them suitable for moderate exercise and activity, thanks to their secure fit and light weight. And those who like to customize an already modern look will find V-Moda’s personalization options irresistible.
The decision to offer a headphone our Editor’s Choice award is rarely so easy. If you’re looking to upgrade your listening experience and keep the price tag down around $200, you just can’t go wrong with the V-Moda XS.
- Extremely compact and portable
- All-day comfort
- Premium sound signature
- Highly customizable
- Upper midrange can get a little forward
- Refined lows may leave bass-heads wanting more