I have noticed, and you probably have too, that many headphones like for amplifiers to be turned up beyond a certain threshold volume level (the level varies from model to model) before they will seem to “come alive” and give of their best. One of the nicest things about the MS 400 is that it begins to come alive at fairly low power/volume levels, so that you never really need to lean hard on amplifiers in order to get this headphone to work well. I’m convinced this characteristic is one of the things that helps make the MS 400 such a perfect match for use with iPods and the like. Where many headphones sound subtly constricted or dynamically constrained when powered by iPods, the MS 400 really does not. It’s perfectly willing to deliver a dynamically expressive performance when driven by the ubiquitous Apple devices—something that can’t really be said of many competing headphones. Does the overall sound quality of the MS 400 improve if you choose to add a high quality outboard amp such as the ALO Audio Rx MkII? Sure it does, but my point is that its sound is not too shabby when driven by the iPod/iPhone/iPad on its own.
Next, let’s look at tonal balance. The sound of the MS 400 is tilted somewhat toward the warmer-than-neutral end of the audio spectrum, but in a pleasingly subtle way that complements most types of music. First, bass output—and in particular, mid-bass output—sounds just a touch warmer than neutral, though it is reasonably tightly controlled and offers a decent measure of pitch definition. For many listeners (and listening contexts), slightly enriched bass output, which is what the MS 400 delivers, is vastly preferable to overly thin-sounding bass, which can make headphones sound unpleasantly anemic.
Midrange is the area where the MS 400 arguably shines brightest, partly because its midrange frequencies are well-balanced, but also because the midrange of this headphone is highly dynamically expressive and full of energy and life. Where many mid-priced headphones sound slightly compressed in the mid-band, the MS 400 throws back its head, figuratively speaking, and sings with real brio. This quality, coupled with generally smooth midrange balance, is what makes the MS 400 special.
Highs are generally smooth, but also a little bit recessed relative to the MS 400’s midrange. Given that the MS 400 is likely to be powered by iPods, which have been known to exhibit somewhat dry and potentially edgy and brittle-sounding highs, subtly recessed highs may actually prove to be a blessing in disguise. The key here is that the MS 400’s highs are smooth, so that when playing less than perfectly recordings or used with modest electronics, the Phiaton is able to make the most of the material it is fed, and without painfully underscoring the flaws in recordings or ancillary components.
If you stop to think about it, the voicing of the MS 400 almost seems calculated to help compensate for the most frequently reported flaws observed in iPods. For example, iPods are thought to have thin and unconvincing bass, while the MS 400 offers slightly enriched but also fairly well-controlled bass. Next, iPods are said to deliver midrange frequencies, textures, and timbres that sound somewhat bleached-out and lifeless, while the MS 400 offers well balanced mids that sound quite detailed and dynamically expressive and alive. Finally, iPods are thought to err in the direction of highs that can sound over edgy, bright, or brittle, while the MS 400 offers smooth and ever-so-slightly recessed highs. Put all of these qualities together and you can quickly see why I think the MS 400 stands as one headphone that can give truly satisfying sonic results when used with an iPod alone.
Just to see how the MS 400 would fare when faced with a piece of delicate and revealing classical music, I decided to play the Hilary Hahn recording of the Meyer Violin Concerto [Wolff/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Sony]. I regard this record as an acid-test of sorts for midrange and treble purity and cohesiveness, partly because it makes the sound of Hahn’s violin so completely exposed, and partly because it showcases the full range of the violin—from its lower registers right on up to the top, with high frequency overtones that reach higher still. The Phiaton passed this test with, for the most part, flying colors. Hahn’s playing style contains both elements of sweetness and incisiveness, with an overarching clarity, liveliness, and expressive forcefulness that are tricky to reproduce well. Even so, I felt the MS 400 did a fine job—especially for a headphone that is relatively moderately priced. The only things missing were the very finest layers of filigreed detail and the very highest of high-frequency overtones that would ideally let you hear the “air” surrounding the bow, strings, and body of the instrument. But the really good news is that the MS 400 did well in capturing the expressive vigor of Hahn’s playing style—a quality that is at once elusive, and yet beautiful to hear when it is properly reproduced.