I’ve sometimes encountered a bias in the headphone marketplace that goes something like this: “On-ear ‘phones are more for convenience-oriented users, while full-size, over-the-ear headphones are the ones geared more for serious music lovers.” The implication, of course, is that while on-ear designs have their place, they must typically make certain sonic sacrifices in the name of achieving a more compact form factor—or so goes the common wisdom. But in the case of V-MODA’s Crossfade M-80 common wisdom is wrong, and here’s why. The M-80’s offer sound quality that is fully competitive with some of the better over-the-ear designs in their price class, while also giving listeners something more; namely, the kind of sensitivity and free-breathing dynamics that enable the M-80 to sound just fine when powered directly from an iPod.
What elements comprise the M-80’s “core sound?” I would say the sonic character of the M-80 hinges on midrange and upper midrange response that is at once evocative, dynamically expressive, and detailed, yet very smooth. Building outward from that solid foundation, the V-MODA’s upper bass and mid-bass find that elusive sweet spot between richness on the one hand, and tautness and control on the other. Low bass is surprisingly good too, though perhaps not the last word in very low-frequency weight and depth. Up high, the M-80s are reasonably detailed, though perhaps not quite as finely or fully resolved as some of today’s better $200-range over-the-ear ‘phones (e.g., the Shure SRH-840). Even so, the M-80 highs enjoy the twin blessings of being sweet (but not cloyingly sweet) of timbre and delightfully smooth, which helps the V-MODA’s sound open and airy without veering into edginess or an etched and artificially “hyper-detailed” presentation.
One caveat is that the M-80’s bass performance is absolutely dependent upon being able to achieve a good seal between the headphone’s comfortable memory foam ear pads and the wearer’s ears—something that is easy for some listeners to achieve, but more difficult for others. The limiting factor, here, is that the M-80’s frame is designed to allow the ear cups to swivel up and down, but not from side to side, which can make the ‘phones difficult to fit for some listeners. Bass is entirely adequate, and indeed quite powerful and satisfying, when the fit is right, but if the fit isn’t right then all bets are off.
Taken together, these sonic qualities make the M-80 expressive and engaging, with good foundational mid-bass support and a smooth top end that helps makes the ‘phones easy to enjoy for long listening sessions. After several good, long listening sessions, I found myself reflecting on the M-80’s performance and thinking that it simply seemed more sonically substantive, revealing, and accurate than many of the on-ear ‘phones I’ve experienced in the past. Indeed, with all factors considered, the Crossfade M-80 might be the most well rounded and best performing model in V-MODA’s entire lineup—one that could also change audiophiles’ perceptions of what on-ear ‘phones can be and do.
While writing this review, I’ve been listening to the Crossfade M-80s play Miles Davis’ classic Kind of Blue [Columbia], and it has been an instructive experience. Those of you who know this classic jazz recording well would probably agree that it is nothing if not nuanced, and the impressive thing was to hear just how much of that sonic treasure trove the moderately priced M-80 was able to unlock.
The track “So What” opens with a simple, contemplative and almost inquisitive-sounding theme carried by Paul Chambers’ bass and Bill Evan’s piano, and as that theme unfolds you can hear the M-80’s offer up a surprisingly powerful rendition of the bass’ lower register voice. The M-80 also does a good job with the much higher pitched, rising piano theme, and though it gives a somewhat subdued presentation of the piano’s upper harmonics, it does a beautiful job with the instrument’s fundamental voice. Later, the bass takes up a rhythmic vamp that will appear and reappear throughout the song, while Jimmy Cobb delicately keeps time on his cymbals and Evan and Davis on his trumpet supply the familiar and distinctive, descending two-note commentaries, which are repeated between bass phrases, and that serve in part as this song’s hallmark.
As Cobb plays his cymbals, the M-80’s highs are very smooth—not hot, sizzly, or overwrought as they might be on some headphones. While the M-80 does sacrifice the Nth degree of treble shimmer and extension that might be heard on more expensive ‘phones, the presentation is nevertheless rewarding, in part because it lets you hear the shimmer of the cymbals with overdoing things. Davis’ trumpet, in turns, sounds lovely, so that you can easily pick up on its at once incisive and yet profoundly melancholy voice, and the M-80 provides sufficient resolution to hear the subtle embouchure noises as Davis’ lips release each note. It’s that sort of sonic detail that sets the M-80 apart from many less refined on-ear competitors. And importantly, when Davis throws more energy (and air) behind certain of his solo lines, the M-80 breathes with him—letting the dynamics flow and expand precisely as they should.