Then, to give the MS 400 a further workout, I turned to a recording I regard as an old favorite: Holly Cole’s performance of Tom Wait’s “Train Song” as captured on Temptation [Blue Note]. The song is both anchored and driven forward by a loping, syncopated acoustic bass line that sounded terrific through the Phiatons. Pitch definition and weighting on the bass were both quite good, though levels did reflect a bit of the MS 400’s characteristic low-end enrichment. Even so, the headphone’s bass performance was well defined, capturing the earthy, textural growl of the bass, so that while presented from an up-close and therefore powerful perspective, the sound of the bass was rich yet by no means boomy or out of control.
At the same time, the song features a variegated mix of percussion sounds, including brushes on a snare drum and on cymbals of varying sizes, pitches, and textures, plus a delicious mix of small tinkling chimes and other small percussion instruments. What caught my ear was that the MS 400 offered sufficient midrange/treble detail to separate and clearly present the distinctive voices and tonalities each of the instruments, even when they played in similar or overlapping pitch ranges. Once again, the only things missing were a few extremely subtle low-level treble details and high frequency overtones.
Finally, the MS 400 did a great job of catching the breathy and at times sultry qualities of Holly Cole’s voice, which at a few points in the song, were complemented by brief, haunting accent notes played on a flute (whose sound mimics that of a train whistle). On Cole’s voice, the sheer expressiveness of the MS 400 really carries the day, conveying the evocative inflections that are so much a part of Cole’s singing voice.
Note: During my listening tests I fed the MS 400 directly from an iPod Classic (using lossless audio files, of course) and also routing the signal from the iPod through a Moon Audio Silver Dragon LOD (line out dock) cable to an ALO Audio Rx MkII amplifier. While the Phiatons did sound best with the ALO amp and specialty Moon Audio cable in play, the really amazing thing was to hear how good the Phiatons sounded when driven by the iPod alone—a testimonial, I feel, to the overall ease with which the MS 400 can be driven.
Consider this headphone if: you value a highly expressive and generally well-balanced headphone that sounds absolutely terrific when powered by iPods, iPhones, and iPads. While the MS 400’s overall balance falls slightly on the warmer-than-neutral side of the audio spectrum, its deviations from strict neutrality are comparatively minor, well controlled, and expertly judged. While you can use an outboard amp with this headphone, the cool thing is that you don’t really have to do so.
Look further if: you want strictly neutral tonal balance or are hoping to achieve that elusive “Nth degree” of treble extension and detail. The subtly subdued highs of the MS 400 can’t pull off those particular sonic feats, but they also help make this headphone more forgiving of less than ideal recordings or electronics.
Ratings (relative to comparably priced headphones):
Tonal Balance: 8.5 - 9
Clarity: 8.5 - 9
Comfort/Fit: 9 (though some may find the ear cups too small and confining)
Sensitivity: 9.5 - 10
Noise Isolation: 8 (good, but not as good as Phiaton’s marketing claims would suggest)
Phiaton’s MS 400 sings with a warm and dynamically expressive voice that consistently makes the most of the material it is fed. Most importantly, the headphone is delightfully un-fussy to use and sounds great when powered directly from an iPod or other small, portable devices.
Phiaton MS 400 Headphone
Accessories: As listed under “FEATURES”, above.
Frequency Response: 15Hz – 22kHz
Drivers: 40mm “Studio Grade” Drivers
Impedance: 32 Ohms
Weight: 6.5 oz.
Warranty: 1 year, parts and labor