Phiaton is a fast growing company that specializes in building sleek, stylish, affordable, and good-sounding headphones, earphones, and music docks. In a fascinating background statement found on the firm’s web site, Phiaton explains the origins of its company name in this way:
“In ancient Greece, the letter ‘PHI’ symbolized the ‘golden ratio,’ an elegant mathematical concept that has long fascinated great thinkers because it represents symmetry of form that is both structurally balanced and aesthetically pleasing to the senses. The golden ratio has inspired masterpiece works in the mathematics of Fibonacci, the architecture of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the musical compositions of Debussy. The use of ‘PHI’ in Phiaton defines a pleasurable listening experience made possible by expertly designed audio technology. ‘TON’ is used in many contexts, but in Phiaton, it has a double meaning. Its inspirations comes both from the English word tone, referring to character and quality of sound, and from the French use of ton to mean fashionable style.”
Obviously, Phiaton has set some ambitious goals for itself, and equally obviously it hopes to reach those goals through products that combine—in roughly equal proportions—both technically sound designs and a serious element of style. Given those dual objectives, how does the firm’s MS 400 headphone ($249) stack up? A perhaps equally important question is this: For what types of users or listeners has the MS 400 been designed?
We’ll consider each of these questions in a moment, but let me begin by hinting at a possible answer. Based on what I’ve heard from the MS 400, I suspect it was designed specifically for users whose primary (and perhaps only) audio source component is an iPod, iPhone, or iPad—one that will be expected to drive these headphones without an auxiliary outboard amplifier of any kind. When used in this context, the MS 400 is capable of giving astonishingly good results.
• The MS 400 is a decided compact yet still full-sized, closed-back, over-the-ear (circumaural) headphone.
• The headphone sports a matte black frame, gloss-finished and chrome trimmed carbon fiber earcups, plus a lipstick red leather headband pad and matching ear cup pads. Alternatively, an all-black version is also available (though as you might expect it is much less visually striking than the red/black version).
• By design, the MS 400 ear cups can be adjusted up or down, swiveled from side to side, or rotated to fold flat for transport.
• The overall look of the headphone is more than a little reminiscent of the design motifs and color schemes sometimes seen in accessories created for Ferrari or Porsche enthusiasts, though the MS 400s are of course priced to be accessible to those of us of more modest means.
• The MS 400 features, as noted above, “double-shell” ear cups made of carbon fiber.
• The MS 400 is a closed-back design said to “promote greater noise isolation.”
• The MS 400 provides “studio grade” 40mm driver diaphragms for “full-range high fidelity” with “optimized airflow drivers” said to deliver “concert hall sound quality.”
• Rated sensitivity is a relatively high 98dB, but quite frankly the MS 400 sounds even more sensitive (that is, easier to drive) than other headphones we have heard that carry even higher sensitivity ratings.
• The MS 400 comes with a semi-hardshell, canvas-covered carrying case.
• The MS 400 comes fitted with a gold-plated ¼-inch (6.3mm) phone plug that unsnaps to reveal an also gold-plated 3.5mm mini-jack plug underneath.
Let’s begin our discussion of the MS 400’s sonic character by focusing in on one the headphone’s most significant and noteworthy performance characteristics: namely, the fact that this headphone is remarkable sensitive and easy to drive. Rated sensitivity for the MS 400 is 98dB—a good figure, but far from the highest I’ve seen. However, what the specifications don’t tell is how effortlessly the MS 400 can be driven to very satisfying volume levels by most any iPod, iPhone, or iPad (and without necessarily turning volume levels on those devices up very high). In my view there is more to the phrase “easy to drive” that sensitivity, per se. This is because sensitivity ratings will tell you how loudly a given headphone will play for a specified amount of power (usually 1mW), but they won’t tell you how much power might be needed in order to enable the headphone to deliver truly good sound quality.