What makes the sound of the Tanto special? For starters, the tonal balance of the Tanto is amazingly neutral from the lowest low-end notes right on up into the lower treble region (though some might find the bass slightly too lightly balanced). There is a narrow and relatively minor region of emphasis that falls around the 2kHz – 3kHz region, but it is so well controlled that it generally does nothing more than to very subtly highlight sharp, percussive midrange transient sounds (the sound of guitar picks on strings, for example). Way up high in the upper reaches of the top octave there may also be a subtle degree of treble rolloff, though I doubt that most listeners would even notice it. (Click here to visit a web page that shows Urbanear’s published frequency response graph for the Tantos.). My point is that the overall tonal balance of the Tanto is just shockingly good for a headphone that costs only $40 (you could spend a lot more, yet still wind up with ‘phones that were much less accurately balanced than the Tantos are.).
Overall neutrality is, as it turns out, only part of the Tanto’s appeal, because this headphone is not only accurately balanced, but also surprisingly subtle and capable when it comes to capturing delicate textural and timbral details. Serious sonic refinement is one quality you might not necessarily expect in an inexpensive headphone, yet the Tanto delivers in spades. The longer you listen, the more these compact headphones will pull you in to the inner recesses of the music, letting you hear how numerous small sonic elements coalesce to form a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts. In short, subtlety, detail, and refinement are the qualities that enable the Tanto to sound considerably more expensive than it actually is.
Are there caveats? Yes, though they are pretty easy to forgive and/or overlook in light of the Tanto’s oh-so-modest price.
First, as is often the case with on-ear headphones that have small, dish-shaped ear pads, noise isolation is OK, but nothing to write poems about. For some listeners, though, limited noise isolation may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as the Tantos let you listen in, say, office environments secure in the knowledge that you’ll be able to hear any co-workers who need to approach you with questions, etc.
Second, the Tantos will play at satisfying volumes when driven by iPods and the like, though they will not play as loudly as some other competing headphones might. In part I think this characteristic has to do with the fact that the Tanto’s gently dish-shaped ear pads simply do not seal as tightly against ear surfaces as other types of pads do.
Third, it is important to bear in mind that the superior sonic qualities of the Tanto (and in particular its bass performance) are very much fit-dependent. When the fit is right, the Tanto’s sound will typically be rich and vibrant from top to bottom. But, if the Tanto should slip out of position then the headphone’s sound will become overly midrange-forward and bass performance will drop off dramatically. To optimize the fit, try tilting the headband strap of the Tanto either forward or backward by small incremental degrees until you find a listening position where all the elements of the sound suddenly “click” into place.
To hear a broad spectrum of the Tanto’s sonic benefits in action, check out Jen Chapin’s rendition of the Stevie Wonder tune “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” as captured on ReVisions [Chesky, SACD]. In this recording, you’ll hear jazz vocalist Jen Chapin accompanied by a saxophone and acoustic bass, where the performance is captured within the resonant interior of a church. Listen, first and foremost, to the subtle tonalities and inflections in Chapin’s voice, and particularly to the way she emphasizes certain phrases to underscore the biting, sardonic sense of humor Wonder has woven into the song’s lyrics.
Next, pay close attention to the acoustic bass, which serves both as a melodic and rhythm instrument on this track. Note how the Tantos capture the deep, earthy growl of the instrument’s sustained notes, but also clear renders the occasional sounds of the instrument’s strings being slapped against its fingerboard, or the manner in which the bassist varies plucking techniques to give some notes an extra degree of bite and “snarl.” (At some points, if you listen carefully, the Tantos will even let you hear the bassist softly singing/humming along with the music).